After the exile, a group of Israelites returned to Jerusalem to undertake the work of rebuilding the Temple and the city. The mission of these Israelites is recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah and includes a long list of names of those who returned and what they did when they got there. And the first thing they did when they got there was to rebuild the altar.
Now, you would think that this makes perfect sense. A faithful people of God returning to their promised land and to the Temple that bears His name would be most interested, probably, in having a place to offer their sacrifices. Finally, a holy place to slaughter a ram or a lamb, to pour out the blood, to raise an aroma pleasing to the Lord. For years, they've been offering their sacrifices in exile, in whatever place they could find or whatever barren land they've been given. But now...now, they can offer a proper sacrifice. So rebuilding the altar seems like the natural thing to do.
All of this makes sense if we're talking about a people of the Temple, but keep in mind - this hasn't really been a people of the Temple in a long time; this has been a people of exile, a wandering people, a displaced people. So to understand what the altar meant to them, we can't just look at the people of the Temple; we have to look at the wanderers, too.
And what we find in the wanderers is that for them, the altar was a witness.
It was a witness for Abraham when God provided. It was a witness for Jacob when he built an altar along the shores of the Jabbok, where he had wrestled with God. It was a witness for the tribes after they had crossed the Red Sea and the Jordan. It was a witness between Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh and the rest of Israel when they settled into the Promised Land. God's people have been erecting altars as witnesses since the day they walked out of Eden.
So when they walk back into Jerusalem after so many years in exile, what do they do? They build an altar as a witness - to all that God has done to bring them here and to all that God is doing to help them here and to all that God will do to affirm them here.
This altar stands not just as a place to worship but as a witness to the Worshiped.
Whenever, then, the people are weary, whenever they are discouraged, whenever they are questioning whether coming back was a good idea, whenever the work is going a little too slow, whenever their enemies come against them, whenever there's doubt or a loss of heart or a loss of hope, they're ready for that. They planned for that first, likely knowing those hard days were coming. They made it their priority to have a way to remember. They erected a witness.
They built an altar.
A lot of us would benefit from a few more altars in our lives. Not as places to worship, although that's important, but as witnesses. As reminders of what God has done to bring us here, what He is doing to help us here and what He will do to affirm us here. We would do well to have ways to remember the Lord who directs our lives, who has intervened - the God who has provided, the One with whom we wrestle, the Mighty One who parts the seas and leads us through. We could all use an altar here or there.
First things first.