Updated: Jun 23
Worship Before Work
The Word: Ezra 3:1-11
True worship empowers fruitful work in God’s kingdom.
You will need to put on your thinking caps today. There will be several questions asked which I will not be providing answers for.
The exile was a major problem for the Jews; it contradicted everything they believed about God and His promises. It stripped them of their land, their king, and the very dwelling place of God: their temple. Yet God had promised David these would last forever.
After the exiles had returned home (Ezra 1—2), the focus of the community shifted to the establishment of a second temple (chaps. 3—6). The temple functioned as the religious epicenter of the community, so the work of rebuilding it took center stage among the people. The prophets envisioned a restored temple as an integral part of God’s restoration plan for the post-exilic community (see Ezek. 40—48); therefore, getting started on the project remained a top priority among the returnees.
Work on the project occurred in stages, with construction of the altar taking place first before the people turned their attention to laying the foundation of the temple. Constructing the altar took priority as it allowed religious life to return to some sense of normalcy during this restoration period. With the altar established, the community could offer daily burnt offerings and other important sacrifices on it, as well as celebrate traditional religious festivals. Religious activity centered around the altar served as the cultic substitute until the temple could be completed.
Although completion of the temple would not be realized for several years, laying the foundation provided a sense of anticipation for a “fully restored” cultic life upon its completion. The community’s jubilant response to the repaired foundation gives evidence to the joy and hope a restored temple would bring to the people as it functioned as the central place of worship. Our Scripture Focus this week recounts the efforts of the people as they attempted to restore some semblance of proper worship after they returned from exile.
A. Rebuilding the Altar (Read John 3:1-6)
The Israelites’ journey to their homeland took about four months. Ezra 2:70 indicates not everyone returned to live in Jerusalem but rather settled in various towns. Only a few weeks later, they convened in Jerusalem for their sole purpose in returning—to rebuild the temple.
What is the significance of the phrase in verses 2 and 4: “in accordance with what is written”?
Guidelines for Israelite worship had been instituted by God through Moses from the days preceding their entry into the Promised Land. One of the functions of worship is to connect us to the larger community of faith, both physically and historically. (That has been hard to do these last few months.)
The people had neither a temple nor altar ready for their burnt offerings and sacrifices. They built the altar first because worship was the main thing. Remember that their worship revolved around the altar.
· What distractions get in the way of our worship and our mission?
· What fears (v. 3) and difficulties might the people have faced?
The returning Israelites feared the people that were living around Jerusalem. They did not have a lot of resources. They would have been discouraged because of the destruction of the city, much like people today that are hit with wild fires, hurricanes, floods, etc.
· When you are faced with a daunting task for the Lord, where do you start?
· Do you think for most people prayer is a first stop or a last resort when the work gets difficult? Why?
Job one for the returning Israelites was the altar, the place for sacrifice and worship.
· Why was it important that the altar was rebuilt in exactly the same place David had selected and where Solomon had constructed the first temple? (v. 3; 2 Samuel 24:18.) 18That day Gad came to David and said to him, “Go up and build an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.”? (Connection to the past. Once ground had been used for sacred purposes, it remained set apart for such over the years and continued the legacy for previous generations.*)
The timing of their arrival in Jerusalem at the month of three important religious observances was not coincidental. God intended them to begin by connecting with their past.
· How do you think connecting with the feasts and offerings prescribed in the Law of Moses might have inspired the people to go forward in their mission to rebuild the temple?
· How can remembering the past inform our present worship? How might it impede our worship? What makes the difference?
B. Laying the Foundation of the Temple (Read Ezra 3:7-9)
Verse 7 says they began by giving money, food, drink, and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre.
With the altar established, attention turned toward rebuilding the temple. Interestingly, the work of procuring the human and material resources for the new building project shares many similarities with the description of the work on the first temple. A comparison of 1 Kings 5:1-18 with our text indicates that Solomon also looked to Tyre (specifically Hiram, king of Tyre) for the skilled artisans and the cedar wood to complete the project. In this way, the first temple functioned or served as a pattern for the new one. Moreover, whereas Solomon looked to Hiram for help earlier, on this occasion, foreign assistance was provided by King Cyrus, who had given the returnees permission to build the new temple (1:3). The temple project would also be aided by and completed under King Darius, the successor to Cyrus.
According to the date given in verse 8, seven months had passed since the construction of the altar and work on the temple began. Once again, a parallel to construction on the first temple is evident in that the second month was also the time when Solomon had begun work on the first temple (2 Chron. 3:2).
While Ezra 3:1-6 concentrates on the prelude of worship, verses 7-9 concentrate on work. Swinging a hammer or painting a wall seems much like worship here.
· How are worship and work related? How does worship inspire work?
· Have you ever physically helped to construct a church building? What effect did that have on your spiritual life?
· Beyond construction labor, make a list of concrete actions that can bring God’s kingdom to earth ... inside and outside the church. We think of these as acts of service, but how can they also be acts of worship?
· How does worship help us deal with problems that are sure to arise in any project undertaken for God?
C. Celebration Over the Completed Foundation (Read Ezra 3:10-11)
The account in Ezra, chapter 3, deals with foundations. The restoration of the temple began with the laying of a strong foundation (vv. 3, 10). And the restoration of their worship began with the laying of a strong spiritual foundation.
The laying of the foundation called for a celebration. But it was more than celebrating the accomplishment of a human feat. This celebration pointed to the past as they sang the praises prescribed by King David (v. 10). When you look to the past, what events or answers to prayer prompt you to sing praises to God?
Rebuilding the Jerusalem temple proved to be a major challenge for the Jewish community. According to Ezra 4—6, various obstacles delayed the project’s completion for nearly 20 years. Fortunately they gained God’s perspective through worship at the very beginning of the project. In worship they recalled the past, lived into the present, and envisioned the future. Little did they know at the time how much they would need this in the years to come.
D. Connect to My Life and the World
The rebuilding of the temple as recorded in Ezra 3 begins in worship with the construction of the altar and ends in praise at the laying of the foundation. What lies between the worship and the praise is work—that four-letter word we must all face.
· Whether you work at home, at a place of employment, as a volunteer, or as a retiree, what particular challenges are you facing this week that will require strength beyond yourself?
· How can your worship today equip you for your week ahead?
· What concrete action can you take this week to demonstrate God’s love and bring His kingdom to earth?
Close by reading the following prayer:
Lord, may our worship today, the emptying of ourselves, and our sacrifice of praise be an opportunity for Your infilling so that our lives may be pleasing sacrifices to You.
HOMEWORK: Ezra is unknown in the Old Testament until we first read of him in the book of Ezra—in fact, he doesn’t appear until chapter 7 of this book. Who was Ezra and why was he important in the history of Israel after the exile? In other words, find out who Ezra was and what was his mission?
*Jim Edlin. New Beacon Bible Commentary: Ezra/Nehemiah. (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansa City, 2017), 60.
Material for this lesson is found in:
Faith Connections Leaders Guide Summer 20
Illustrated Bible Life Summer 20
Reflecting God Summer 20
Holy Bible (various translations)