If you have ever been to Israel (or looked at photographs for that matter), chances are you have seen the familiar view of Jerusalem from the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. There, glistening in the sun, is the golden Dome of the Rock, and just to the south sits the plainer looking El-Aksa Mosque. Both are recognized as Islamic holy sites. Both occupy a place upon the Temple Mount, Mount Moriah, the only truly holy site in all of Judaism.
It was on Mount Moriah that Solomon built the First Temple some 3000 years ago. It was there that the Second Temple was rebuilt 2500 years ago. And there, this month, thousands of religious Jews mourn the Temple’s destruction. According to tradition it was on Tisha B’Av (Hebrew for the ninth day of the month of Av) that both first and second Temples were destroyed. (See chart on page four for more facts and customs regarding this day.)
Why does the memory of these ancient edifices still grip Jewish hearts? Why does their loss rend so many with sorrow? Why does the hope of rebuilding the Temple stir such passion and kindle such hopes and dreams? The answers take us all the way back to the days of Abraham and Isaac.
Genesis 22 records “the Akedah,” or the binding of Isaac, when the Lord commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son on a mountain in the land of Moriah. With his knife poised in mid air, we can only imagine the utter relief that rushed through Abraham when the Angel of the Lord stopped him. He joyfully sacrificed the ram that God had provided in place of his son, and declared, “In the mount of the Lord it shall be provided” (Genesis 22:14). Both Jews and Christians recognize the place on which those events took place as the mountain of God, or Yahweh Yireh (Hebrew for “the Lord will provide”).
Centuries later, Moses envisioned “the mountain of inheritance”—that same sacred place where Abraham’s faith in God was tested and blessed—as the ideal site for the sanctuary of God. There God would dwell in the midst of His people; there He would provide atonement for their sins, forgive them and make them holy. That atonement was to be secured through the blood of the animal sacrifices offered on the altar. Moses prayed prophetically for such a place:
“You will bring them in and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance, in the place, O Lord, which You have made for Your own dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established” (Exodus 15:17 ).
Centuries passed before the answer to that prayer was realized. King David purchased the property on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem and would have commenced building, but God appointed Solomon, David’s son, to the task. Even as the Temple was being dedicated, God fulfilled Moses’ prophecy:
“And it came to pass, when the priests came out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:10,11).
What a powerful moment! There could be no doubt that God had come to dwell with His people; the Temple was now the center of Israel’s worship and the anchor of her religious sensibility.
That first Temple stood for nearly 400 years. But the Jewish people began to put their confidence in the Temple itself rather than the One who dwelt within it. It was as though they thought they had God’s power harnessed within the confines of a mere building. Worse yet, they had turned to idols. God warned that judgment was coming, and in 586 B.C. that judgment came in the form of the Babylonian conquerors. The Temple of the Lord in all of its beauty was destroyed.
Words cannot describe Israel’s agony. Her insides were ripped out. Her sense of calling and purpose was rooted in that Temple and in the knowledge that God was in her midst. With no Temple, there was no assurance of God’s presence or His provision of forgiveness for the nation.
In 538 B.C., Zerubbabel and a host of Israelites returned to Jerusalem in accordance with the decree of King Cyrus of Persia. The book of Ezra recounts the building of the Second Temple, which took 23 years to complete. But the Second Temple hardly compared to the first. The returned exiles certainly hadn’t the wealth of Israel’s former kings for its construction. What is more, there seems to have been no Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place—only emptiness, with nothing covering the now famous foundation stone. The very glory of God, so evident in the First Temple, seemed absent as well.
Yet God had promised through the prophet Haggai, “‘The glory of this latter temple shall be greater than the former,’ says the LORD of hosts. ‘And in this place I will give peace,’ says the LORD of hosts” (Haggai 2:9).
How would God fulfill that promise? Remember that Jesus not only taught in and around that Temple, but also made an astounding claim: “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ . . . But He was speaking of the temple of His body” (John 2:19—21).
By identifying Himself as the Temple, Jesus claimed to embody the very purpose of that Temple. In one brief, yet profound, statement, He pointed to Himself as the very presence of God that had once dwelled in the Temple. And at the same time, He identified Himself with the Temple sacrifice. What God had not required Abraham to do in sacrificing his son Isaac, God Himself did in sending His son Jesus to die on a cross. And when He rose from the dead after three days as promised, He proved that His sacrifice for sin was acceptable once and for all. This was God’s plan all along. Animals could not take the punishment for the sins of the people. Yet those sacrifices pointed to a time when an innocent person, God’s own Son, would willingly lay down His life as an atonement for sin. And so Jesus established peace, just as the prophet foretold.
Jesus not only foretold His own death and resurrection, He also made an ominous prediction concerning the Second Temple.
“Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down’” (Matthew 24:1,2).
Titus and his Roman legions fulfilled that prediction as they marched into Jerusalem, destroyed the city and destroyed the Temple. This national tragedy pointed back to the words of Jesus of Nazareth. Thousands of Jews had already come to faith in Him. At the destruction of that Second Temple in A.D. 70, thousands more recognized that He had spoken truly.
Yet the majority of Jewish people did not receive Jesus, and so it remains to this day. As Jewish people mourn the Temple’s destruction this month, few realize they are mourning events that were prophesied. Even fewer realize that what could not be accomplished through the Temple was fulfilled by Jesus the Messiah.
Moreover, the Temple is hardly a daily concern for most Jewish people today. Yet the hope of seeing it stand once more in Jerusalem has never been extinguished. Daily synagogue prayers have kept that hope alive. “Be pleased, Lord our God, with Thy people Israel and with their prayer. Restore the worship of Thy most holy sanctuary.”1 This prayer has been on the lips of Jewish people for 2,000 years. May God honor that prayer, especially for many who are mourning this month, by revealing to them the One who is greater than the Temple. May many more Jewish people welcome Jesus the Messiah into their hearts, that He might dwell within, and truly turn mourning to joy.