They set the altar upon its bases, for fear was upon them because of the people of those (surrounding) countries; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, both the (prescribed) morning and evening sacrifices. Ezra 3:3
There is something pathetic in the picture of the assembled people (the remnant who returned from Babylon) groping amid the ruins on the Temple hill, to find ‘the bases,’ the half-obliterated outlines, of the foundations of the old altar of burnt offerings. What memories of Araunah’s threshing-floor, and of the hovering angel of destruction, and of the glories of Solomon’s dedication, and of the long centuries during which the column of smoke had gone up continually from that spot, and of the tragic day when the fire was quenched, and of the years of extinction (when Judah was carried away captive to Babylon) must have filled their hearts! What a conflict of gladness and sorrow must have troubled their spirits as the flame again shot upwards from the hearth of God, cold for so long!
But the reason for their so quickly rearing the altar is noteworthy. It was because ‘fear was upon them because of the people of the countries.’ The state of the Holy Land at the return must be clearly comprehended. Samaria and the central district were in the hands of bitter enemies. Across Jordan in the east, down on the Philistine plain in the west, and in the south where Edom bore sway, eager enemies watched the small beginnings of a movement which they were keen on thwarting. There was only the territory of Judah and Benjamin left free for the exiles, and they had reason for their fears; for their neighbours knew that if restitution was to be the order of the day, they would have to give up a good deal. What was the defence against such foes which these frightened men thought most impregnable? That altar!
No doubt, much superstition mingled with their religion. Haggai leaves us under no illusions as to their moral and spiritual condition. They were no patterns of devoutness or of morality. But still, what they did carries an eternal truth; and they were reverting to the original terms of Israel’s tenure of their land when they acted on the conviction that their worship of Jehovah according to His commandment was their surest way of finding shelter from all their enemies. There are differences plain enough between their condition and ours; but it is as true for us as ever it was for them, that our safety is in God, and that, if we want to find shelter from impending dangers, we shall be wiser to betake ourselves to the altar and sit suppliant there than to make defences for ourselves. The ruined Jerusalem was better guarded by that altar than if its fallen walls had been rebuilt.
The whole ritual was restored, as the narrative tells with obvious satisfaction in the enumeration. To us this punctilious attention to the minutiae of sacrificial worship sounds trivial. But we equally err if we try to bring such externalities into the worship of the Christian Church, and if we are blind to their worth at an earlier stage.
There cannot be a temple without an altar, but there may be an altar without a temple. God meets men at the place of sacrifice, even though there be no house for His name. The order of events here teaches us what is essential for communion with God. It is the altar. Sacrifice laid there is accepted, whether it stand on a bare hill-top, or have round it the courts of the Lord’s house.
Note: Ezra 3:3 is best translated in the KJV, the inspired version of God. Many of the other versions fail to properly translate this vital text. Even today, the KJV stands superior to all other translations. Other translations may be used only to clarify meanings of obscure passages, since the English language has undergone a great change since 1611, over a span of 400 years. ~Ed.