But now in the third chapter there is a principle of very great beauty that comes before us. When the remnant did return, and when they showed this care in not being lax as to those who took the place of nearness to God, what is the first mark of that? What gave them their character before God? In this we find they were united, "they set the altar upon his bases, for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries" (Ezr_3:2). How beautiful! It is not that they began with the wall. It is the more remarkable because there is another book which is devoted to the building of the wall, namely, the book of Nehemiah; but they began with God and not with themselves. They began with the great expression of acceptance before God. The altar was the link between God and His people - was the point of contact, so to speak, between them - was the place where they made their offerings. Their thank-offerings, their burnt offerings - all were brought to the altar. It was, in short, therefore, what showed that the first thought of their hearts was God's worship according to their measure, and not merely their own skill or their own prowess against their enemies, and this the more strikingly because the reason given is that fear was upon them, and that fear led them to God and not to themselves or to other men. It is not a petition to the king - to Cyrus, nor is it even the lacking the ways and means of erecting a defence against their enemies.
The first thing they did was to "set the altar upon his bases," and to offer offerings unto God. "And they offered burnt offerings thereon unto Jehovah, even burnt offerings morning and evening." And, further, it is expressly stated that this was done on the part of "Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brethren," who "builded the altar of the God of Israel to offer burnt offerings thereon, as it is written in the law of Moses, the man of God. And they set the altar upon his bases; for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries: and they offered burnt offerings thereon unto Jehovah, even burnt offerings morning and evening. They kept also the feast of tabernacles as it is written" (vers. 2, 3).
What, then, marked them was this - jealousy for the word of God - but the word of God used with a single eye. For it is not taking up such parts of the word of God as would bear upon their own doings for themselves; but rather what they owed to such a God. In short, it is a beautiful sample of the faith of the remnant. The first thought of their heart was God, and so much the more because they were really afraid of the enemies round about; but that fear was expressed, not in human measures to guard against that which they dreaded, but in drawing near to God, to own Him, to praise Him. "They kept also the feast of tabernacles, as it is written," Therefore we find their jealous care for the word of God. It was not one thing only, but the authority of the word filled their hearts. So, at any rate, it is that God speaks of it - that God presents them to us. We find, alas! their failure; but this is the way that they began on returning from captivity. "They kept also the feast of tabernacles as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number, according to the custom, as the duty of every day required; and afterward offered the continual burnt offering." So that there was no weariness of it: it was no transient act. There was the daily offering. This is a very important thing.
It is always to me a very unhappy circumstance, beloved brethren, to see God's children merely putting in an appearance on the Lord's Day morning - the mere keeping up an outward link with the Lord and with His people. I admit that there may be circumstances where it cannot but be so - extreme sickness, or there may be positive duties of the most peremptory kind. I am not alluding to them, and we ought to be slow, therefore, to judge in any individual case until we know the facts; but I do say as a general rule now, that the same faith which makes us value the coming together to meet the Lord at His own table ought to make us rejoice to meet the Lord on every occasion, and further, to provide by every means for growing in the truth. For that is one great source of our weakness in worship? It is because we are not growing in spiritual intelligence. If we were using the truth of God and growing up unto Christ in all things there would be a greater fulness in worship and, allow me to add, greater simplicity. There would not be merely the continual use of the same thing, but we should have fresh thoughts without even thinking about them - without an effort, because our hearts would be filled day by day with His truth, and, therefore, it is of so much importance to avail ourselves of every hour.
The early church evidently felt this, for they used to break bread every day, They used to meet together daily; and that did not satisfy them. There were other times. They went up even to the temple. It is a mistake to suppose that freshness and fulness of joy depends on a great deal of knowledge, for this was not the case in the church at Jerusalem. They were still very much affected by the old state of things in Israel. They went up to the temple, therefore, for some time afterwards. A great number of the priests were turned to the faith, and, for aught I know, they may have offered their bullocks and their rams still; but yet they had got hold of the true sacrifice. They had got hold of the truth of Christ, and, as sure as they had, the day would come when they would have done with their bullocks and rams; but the day would never come when they would have done with Christ. They would learn much better, and believe more fully
And God may give us the truth, the effects of which we never realised when we received it; but the effect of that truth will be to drive from our souls, whatever is alien to it, because it is alien to God's will. Therefore it is that you must give people time to grow. You need to be patient with them. You should seek to strengthen them and cheer them and encourage them to receive the truth. Instead of expecting the consequences all at once, leave room for growth. It is very easy, and it is a human thing to get a quantum of truth into the mind; but that is not life, that is not power, that is not growth. What is divine lives, and what lives must have a root and must grow, and for this time must be given. It is not the sign of growth to expand all in a moment. A human mind may take things in. If a man is bright he may take things in very quickly; but that is worth nothing. What shines out so brightly may go out just as fast, whereas what is of God will live and abide.
We see, then, that the word had a great place in their souls - authority over their consciences, and this from the first, and it formed them not only for that special feast, but for the daily one - the burnt offering - the daily burnt offering. Of course, I am speaking of this now as regards the Jews. But then it has a voice for us as well.
"From the first day of the seventh month began they to offer burnt offerings unto Jehovah. But," it is added, "the foundation of the temple of Jehovah was not yet laid" (ver. 6). Thus, you see, there was progress there. No remnant that was ever called out by grace arrived all at once at the truth that God is going to give them. It is a matter of growth as a whole, not only individual growth. But they did not arrive at the understanding of His mind and of His word, and they are not able to do at the beginning what they may understand, and have power for, another day. "The foundation of the temple of Jehovah was not yet laid." But we find in the midst of this state of things that "in the second year of their coming unto the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, began Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and the remnant of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all they that were come out of the captivity unto Jerusalem; and appointed the 1,evites, from twenty years old and upward, to set forward the work of the house of Jehovah." This is noteworthy. They had no thought that all the work was done because they simply got to Jerusalem - that they were simply there owned as Israelites. There was what concerned Jehovah's glory.
This is most important; because many souls at the present time seem to think that the only blessedness and the only thing that is to be called work is the conversion of sinners - the bringing them to God. Never was a greater mistake. Now, I can thank God for it that in the present very low condition of Christendom even the weakest of saints feels the importance of a soul being born to God. Instead of being offended at that I rejoice in it. I rejoice that there are even Roman Catholics who really seek conversions, and I remember hearing of a child of one of our own brothers in Germany that was brought to the Lord by the labours of a young Roman Catholic man. He had received a mortal wound in battle at the time of one of the campaigns of his country. He was a foolish, giddy young man who had heard the truth; but he did it not till death was before his eyes and the judgment of God; but the person employed for his conversion was a Roman Catholic. This was a great rebuke, undoubtedly. It was a person who evidently followed the Lord and who loved the Lord, though in great darkness. Thus the Lord may employ, and not without a reason - a humiliating reason - one in a system of grossest spiritual darkness to be the means of pointing to the light and life of God one who ought to have known incomparably better. Well, then, God is sovereign, and He does these things; and therefore I am never surprised if they tell me that God has employed this person or that in circumstances of the most painful kind. Yet God looks for and uses fidelity. He will always bless those that go forth in the name of the Lord Jesus to win sinners, seeking their conversion. And He will give them their conversion.
But still there is another work. And allow me to say that this is a special work for the people of God - not merely the going up of the Israelites, and the recognising of the priests and the Levites; but work is done for the house of Jehovah, the great corporate work of gathering round the name of Jehovah. That is what we find was so peculiarly dear to Israel, and this is the thing which they set about when they got to Jerusalem - when they were, each individual, in their proper place. What brings them together as a matter of work was the carrying on that work, and what kept them together was the using this central place of the name of Jehovah as that which had a divine claim on their consciences and on their hearts.
Now, it is this of which I want to see a little more, beloved brethren, and I believe that the Lord wants to see more of it. It is the all-important thing for us - not less care for souls, not less concern for their conversion, but - a far deeper, stronger sense of what concerns the glory of the Lord in His own people. And it is the more important because, where is it cared for? Who feels about it? You may find persons - Arminians, Calvinists, Dissenters, Churchmen, occupied about conversion where they are godly; but you will and none of them that enters into the glory of the Lord in His church; and, therefore, I am persuaded that we are the more responsible who have been made to feel in some measure what the church is. On us, poor and weak as we are, devolves very specially the responsibility of giving expression to that truth. That is our heart's care and desire for the good of the church of God - for that which concerns the name of the Lord committed to the trust of man here below.
And when we find the Israelites here together with this view, a remarkable difference appears among them. "When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of Jehovah, they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise Jehovah after the ordinance of David, king of Israel. And they sang together by course in praising and giving thanks unto Jehovah; because he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever toward Israel. And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised Jehovah, because the foundation of the house of Jehovah was laid. But 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" (vers. 10-12). Strange, at first sight, that the self- same thing should be the source of joy to the one and of tears to the other.
Why so? It was the cause of tears to the elder men because they felt how poor was the present expression of Jehovah's glory in their midst compared with what they had once seen - a source of joy to the others because they had only known the utter prostration of the name of the Lord upon the earth, and now their hearts were glad that at any rate there was a distinct and decided confession of that name as entitled to gather together His people, even though it were but a remnant here below. They were both right; and yet the expression of their hearts, how different I But of the two, surely, beloved brethren, it was not that the elder men did not feel the joy of the foundation being laid; but still the sense of sorrow and of humiliation for His name exceeded it. There was, therefore, a more chastened feeling with the elder men. Both were led, and led of the Lord, but in very different measures. And I am persuaded that, of the two, the elder men had the deeper sense of God's glory.