Catastrophe and Communion: Reflections on Tisha b’Av
This month many Jewish people will join in mourning over an especially tragic date. According to Jewish tradition, Tisha b’Av—or the ninth day of the month of Av—is the date of destruction for both the first and second temples in Jerusalem. Religious Jews fast for the entire day or, in some traditions, eat only a hard-boiled egg sprinkled with ashes. No leather clothing or footwear is worn.
The ground where the temple once stood, now controlled by Muslims, remains the most provocative piece of real estate in the world. Extremists spread false rumors about Israeli intentions to occupy the Temple Mount, continually inciting young people to prove their loyalty to Allah by stabbing Jewish civilians. The ninth of Av therefore marks inexorable and ongoing temple-related tragedies for the Jewish people.
This is not how it was supposed to be. The temple was to be a symbol of hope for the Jewish people, carrying with it a promise of communion with God our creator, as voiced by Moses in his prophetic prayer:
“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)
It was hundreds of years before this vision was fulfilled. King David longed to build the temple. He even bought the property on Mount Moriah—the very place where Abraham offered up Isaac—from a man named Ornan. But God would not allow David to build His house. Instead he appointed Solomon, David’s son, to build it. As the temple was dedicated and the people’s voices were lifted in praises to God, Moses’ prophecy was gloriously fulfilled. God came to dwell in His sanctuary.
“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! The temple became the center of Israel’s worship, the anchor of her religious sensibility, the certainty of her communion with God.
That temple stood for nearly 400 years. But over time, the people began to put their confidence in the structure rather than in the sovereign God. It was as though they thought they had His power magically harnessed within the building—even after they had turned to worshiping idols. God warned that judgment was coming and so it did, in 586 b.c., in the form of the Babylonian conquerors. Jerusalem was overrun by foes and the temple in all of its beauty was destroyed. Just as the building had been a symbol of spiritual communion with God, so its destruction was a physical reminder of the spiritual catastrophe of Israel’s idolatry.
Words can’t describe the agony of that destruction. Israel’s kishkes (guts) were ripped out. Her awareness 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. What was once a place of communion with God had been struck by catastrophe. The destruction of the temple and the corresponding exile were the most devastating judgments imaginable—but just as God predicted the judgment, so He planned the restoration.
In 538 b.c., Zerubbabel and a host of Israelites returned to Jerusalem, freed from captivity by decree of King Cyrus of Persia. The book of Ezra describes the building of the second temple. It took 23 years to complete yet it hardly compared to the elaborate beauty of the first. Herod attempted to restore the temple to some of its former glory.
Many of Jesus’ activities and some of His most controversial comments were witnessed in and around that restored temple. For example, “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body” (John 2:19–21).
Can you see what it meant for Jesus to identify Himself as the temple? In one brief statement He claimed to represent the very presence of God once so evident in the holy sanctuary. But Jesus also made an ominous prediction concerning that second temple that would authenticate what He had said about His own life and work.
“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 Jesus’ prediction as they marched into Jerusalem, destroyed the city and decimated the temple. Thousands of Jews had already placed their faith in Yeshua. But when this national tragedy pointed back to the claims of Jesus of Nazareth, thousands more realized He had spoken truly and trusted Him. For them, the catastrophe led to communion. Yet most of my Jewish people did not understand. And so it remains to this day.
The temple was never intended to be a permanent fixture. It was a symbol of hope for those who longed for the presence of God.
The temple was never intended to be a permanent fixture. It was a symbol of hope for those who longed for the presence of God, yet only one person, the High Priest, was allowed to actually enter the Holy of Holies. Jesus, holiness incarnate, made that presence accessible to ordinary folks when He walked on the earth—and He made an astounding promise to His disciples before He left. The Father would send the Spirit to dwell with them and in them (see John 14:15–18). And to this day, He dwells in you and in me and in all who have been reconciled to Him through Jesus. But God’s ultimate promise to “tabernacle in our midst” is still to come!
The amazing description of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation includes all kinds of lavish imagery, including jewels and crystals and various symbolic structures—yet John did not see a temple in the city, “for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Revelation 21:23). His presence will be there—the Shekinah glory—without any of the surrounding barriers that the temple symbolizes.
This month, as many Jewish people mourn the catastrophe of the temple’s destruction, we who know Messiah Jesus long to share our Great Hope with them. The day is coming when we will be gathered around the throne, worshiping the One who is Himself the holy temple. That will be a day of unimaginable joy for all who have been reconciled to God and to one another through Jesus—the day when we will finally and fully know true, unbroken and everlasting communion.
The rest of this newsletter edition is available by pdf. It includes bits from our branches in New York City, Israel and Washington DC, articles on Jewish evangelism in India, a surprising look at an atheist, “For Your Jewish Information,” a cartoon, and of course prayer prompters. Enjoy!
Executive Director, Missionary
David Brickner is executive director of Jews for Jesus. David oversees the world-wide ministry from its headquarters in San Francisco. David received his Master’s degree in Missiology with a concentration in Jewish Evangelism and Judaic Studies from the Fuller School of World Mission. He has authored several books, and has been interviewed on national television shows such as Larry King Live. David’s daughter Ilana is a graduate of Biola. His son Isaac is on the missionary staff of Jews for Jesus. Isaac and his wife Shaina have one daughter, Nora, and a son, Levy, which makes David part of the grandparent club, a membership he is very proud of. See more here.