Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the LORD, both the morning and evening sacrifices.
The book of Ezra details the rebuilding of the temple after the Jews were released from their captivity in Babylon by King Cyrus of Persia. Solomon's temple had been destroyed some 70 years earlier, and the Jews were eager to begin construction on another. They were so eager to serve the Lord after being an entire generation without their temple, that they built the altar first and even began sacrifices upon it.
So eager were they, that they decided to worship God despite their fear of the peoples around them.
After the Jews had been exiled to Babylon, the land they'd once lived in had new tenants. And these new tenants had pagan gods. The Israelites knew there was a chance they'd be persecuted, or perhaps killed, for worshipping Yahweh upon the Temple Mount. What's more, they did it out in the open, as their altar couldn't be hidden by temple walls.
This was very risky. But despite the risk, they continued with the morning and evening sacrifice. Every morning and every evening a cloud of smoke rose up from the burnt offering over the Mount. Probably a pungent smell, too. It would attract curious onlookers, as I'm sure prayers were loudly orated and as well as songs of praise.
But the amazing fact remains, they worshipped God DESPITE their fear of those around them. They worshipped God openly and not only that, there could be no mistaking their worship. You could see the smoke. You could smell the aroma. You could hear the prayers. The Israelites had been too long without their God and to be quite frank, were willing to be persecuted, and perhaps die, to worship Him. They were not about to be exiled again. They had the decree of a KING to help them in their cause.
When the locals began to discourage them from building and bribed officials to frustrate their work, the Israelites feared not and continued on. When their enemies again tried to stop them with a letter of complaint to the current king of Persia, King Darius, the king sent back his own letter, endorsing the prior decree of King Cyrus, and even went further, explaining that any and all who tried to stop the Jews from rebuilding their temple would themselves be impaled on a beam from their own home!
During this time, as messages from Jerusalem took so long to be conveyed back and forth over a great distance to Persia, one of the chief builders of the temple, Zerubbabel (who is named in both Joseph's (Matthew 1:12) and Mary's (Luke 3:27) genealogy of Christ in the New Testament), needed encouragement in his endeavor for the Lord. And God Almighty Himself had pity on him and sent His Word to the prophet in Zechariah 4:6-7 -- “So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty. What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’”
Indeed, they had nothing to fear.
Two kings had decreed it, and God had willed it. Nothing could stop it.
May we draw our own courage from this story. Courage to worship God openly among the people surrounding us. Courage to speak up for Him and do His will, despite the fear in our hearts. Courage to pray, courage to sing, courage to be willing to face persecution, and maybe even be disputed and our reputation tarnished. The Israelites didn't need two decrees from worldly kings. All they needed was the endorsement from Yahweh, Lord of Hosts, and His will would be done.
And indeed, that is what we ourselves have, an eternal endorsement from God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, who has reconciled us to Himself through His Son, Yeshua Messiah.
Let us learn the lesson God taught Zerubbabel and His people as they worshipped at an open-air altar, unsure of the future of their temple:
If God is for us, who can be against us? ~~Romans 8:31