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My New Book on Prayer Released!

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book:  IGNITING AN IMPASSIONED PRAYER LIFE – How to Develop the Energized, Extended, and Sustainable Life of Prayer You’ve Always Wanted. Do you wish you were more motivated to pray? Is your prayer life sporadic and...

What is the best way to pray?

Prayer, like most spiritual practices, is subject to a spectrum of opinion and conviction as to how it is best practiced. Prayer in a word, means different things to different people. Typically we associate prayer with some form of communication and personal encounter with God....

Leadership Principles and Prayer

When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the LORD… Numbers 11:2 (NIV) Why is prayer often the great omission when it comes to discussion of spiritual leadership? In my humble estimation the topic of leadership is the most frequent focus of...

January 17th, 2018 · by Tom Stuart · Check this out!, Church History, News & Reflections

Jerusalem’s Relentless March to Divine Destiny – Pt 6

“It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” John 2:20 NIV

It took nearly twenty-five years after Pompey’s triumph in Jerusalem for the Romans to finally establish a stable government in Judea. Pompey returned almost immediately to Rome where he was vying with Caesar for supreme rule of the Empire. In his absence he appointed two men to govern from Jerusalem, his minister Antipater, who was the son of an Edomite convert to Judaism, and a High Priest named Hyrcanus, who was of Maccabean descent. In 48 BC Pompey was defeated by Caesar in Italy and he fled to Egypt. Caesar gave hot pursuit but two days before he arrived, the Egyptians had already put Pompey to death. Egypt was in the midst of a civil war between King Ptolemy XIII and his deposed queen Cleopatra. During Caesar’s brief stay in Alexandria he threw his lot in with the enchanting young queen. Meanwhile in Jerusalem Antipater, Pompey’s former ally, seeing an opportunity to ingratiate himself with Caesar raised an army to 3,000 local Jews, rallied sympathetic Egyptian Jews, attacked, and defeated Caesar’s opponents. Before returning to Rome, Caesar restored Cleopatra to the throne and then gratefully turned his attention to Judea. He confirmed the high priestly rule of the Jews to Hyrcanus and gave permission for the walls of Jerusalem to be repaired. He granted the governmental power over Judea to Antipater as procurator. In addition, Antipater’s older son, Phasael, and younger son, Herod, were appointed tetrarchs of Jerusalem and Galilee respectively.

Herod, just fifteen years of age at the time, would soon become a rising star on the Roman political stage. Highly educated and gifted with looks, charm, and grit, he was a natural leader with an appetite for power. Herod would deftly handle the malevolent machinations of the Roman government within the next ten years to eventually become the second most powerful individual in the Empire. As the son of a Jewish convert father and an Arab mother, he was also uniquely equipped to navigate both the ethnic and religious dichotomies permeating that part of the world.

The assassination of Caesar in 44 BC triggered a series of events that shook the Roman Empire and once again put Jerusalem in the cross hairs of conflict. When Antipater, Herod’s father, sought to align his rulership of Judea with Cassius, one of Caesar’s murderers, he himself was assassinated. A rival poisoned him and took control of Jerusalem. But the rule of this usurper was short lived as Herod quickly managed to murder him in retaliation and seize power. In the meantime, the vacuum left by Caesar’s death resulted in his adopted son Octavian and his general Mark Antony splitting the Empire between them. The Jews, perceiving an opportunity to cast off Roman rule began an uprising against Herod and his brother. The two of them immediately quelled the rebellion.

In response, a more insidious plot to overthrow these two unwanted Roman puppets was hatched. At the time Jerusalem was being threatened from without by an army invading from the expanding kingdom of Parthia which already occupied territory from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. Jews seeking to restore Maccabean rule forged an agreement with the Parthians, and opening the gates invited them in to liberate the city. The rampaging Parthians were triumphant and in the process murdered Herod’s brother Phasael. They also removed Hyrcanus the High Priest from office and cut off his ears disqualifying him from any further priestly service. Keeping their end of the bargain they crowned a Maccabean prince named Antigonos as king. It was a dream come true for the Jews as they celebrated the return of Hasmonean rule. A despairing, yet combative Herod just barely escaped with a select company including his mother, sister and concubines. Taking them to his mountain top fortress at Masada which he had built earlier, he fled alone to Egypt and from there sailed for Rome.

Antony and Octavian welcomed Herod to Rome where they invited him to join them in their plans to counterattack and expel the Parthians. In 39 BC they declared Herod King of Judea (or King of the Jews) before the Roman Senate. Now an official Roman ally, Herod headed east to enjoin the battle to recapture his kingdom. After three years of conflict with the Parthians, Herod, with the help of Antony’s army, finally reached Jerusalem. Following a siege that lasted forty days they breached the outer walls, ravaged the city, burst into the temple, and killed forty-five of the seventy-one members of the Sanhedrin. They deposed Antigonos the King and dispatched him to Marc Antony for execution, putting an end, once and for all, to Hasmonean/Maccabean monarchs.

The joint rule of Antony and Octavian over the Roman Empire came to an end when they squared off against one another in a naval battle off the western coast of Greece in 31 BC. Octavian triumphed convincingly. Mark Antony escaped to Egypt where he and his paramour Cleopatra, having lost hope, committed suicide. Octavian was now the sole ruler of the Empire and adopted the name Augustus Caesar. Herod, ever the crafty politician, denounced any connection with Antony and won favored status with Caesar who increased his kingdom to include parts of modern Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Shrewdly leveraging his holdings, Herod would become the wealthiest man in the Mediterranean second only to Caesar. Herod was a builder and he wasted no time in constructing two magnificent cities in honor of the new emperor. They were Caesarea on the coast and Sebaste (Greek for Augustus) inland on the former site of Samaria.

Herod the Great, as he would eventually be called, now turned his focus to Jerusalem where he set about to embellish it as an architectural wonder and testimony to his greatness. First he built a military fort north of the Temple named the Antonia Fortress. Then he constructed a towered Citadel and Palace complex with courtyards, colonnades, groves of trees, lawns, and pools all surrounded by a 45 foot wall. Not to be outdone by other leading cities of the era he also build entertainment venues including a Greek style theatre and hippodrome. But his most ambitious project, the remnant of which would be the center of world attention for two thousand years was his construction of an expanded Temple Mount and replacement of Zerubbabel’s Second Temple. He began this, the greatest of his accomplishments, in 20 BC. As a Jew, albeit the descendant of a convert, Herod understood the historical and biblical significance of the Temple both to Jerusalem and the Jewish faith.

Herod was meticulous in his approach to making the reconstruction of the Second Temple incomparable to anything that had preceded it. Sensitive to the apprehension of the Jews and wanting to curry their favor, he engaged them in every aspect of the planning. He saw to it that a thousand priests were trained as builders and arrangements were made for the daily offerings to continue without interruption throughout the construction. The sheer size of the undertaking was mind boggling. Erasing any vestige of the Second Temple and excavating even the remnants of Solomon’s Temple, Herod dug foundations to bedrock. Choosing to greatly expand Mount Moriah’s natural plateau to the south, he built massive retaining walls using gigantic stones weighing up to 600 tons. The precisely cut stones were transported from nearby quarries using thousands of ox-drawn wagons and put in place without the sound of hammer, just as in the construction of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:7.

The Temple Mount and main Temple, with the Holy of Holies positioned over the rock where Abraham had sacrificed Isaac, was completed in two years. Legend has it that during that time it never rained in the day, so the work was enabled to continue without any interruption. The entire project would extend beyond Herod’s lifetime and take decades to complete. Reference to its lengthy construction is recorded in John’s Gospel. It was on the occasion that Jesus was driving out the money changers from the Temple and His authority to do so was challenged by the Jews. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” Jesus retorted. He was speaking prophetically of His body as the temple which would die, but be raised to life in three days. Perplexed, the Jews replied “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days” (John 2:19-20 NIV)? Biblical and other historical accounts of the impressiveness of the Temple complex agree. Jesus’ disciples marveled at its magnificence (Mark 11:1). Historical descriptions speak of its gleaming limestone with gold plating reflecting a fiery visage in the morning sun from the Mount of Olives, so bright that beholders of its glistening glory had to look away.

Despite his magnanimous investment in beautifying Jewish worship Herod was no saint. His lust for power was entangled with and matched by his lust of the flesh. He had at least ten wives in addition to a harem of five hundred. His tempestuous marriage to his favorite wife Mariamne, a Maccabean princess esteemed by the Jews, ended with him having her killed. A niece of Antigonos, she had been plotting his overthrow, suspecting him of killing her brother. Before Herod’s purge of threats to his supreme rule was finished, he had Mariamne’s mother and four of his closest friends put to death as well. It is little wonder therefore that when three wise men from the East came to his Jerusalem court seeking to locate a baby they believed born “king of the Jews” this maniacal possessiveness of his throne was piqued. After all, that was his title, and woe to whomever should dare to take it from him. Having inquired of the chief priests and teachers of the law, Herod had a secret audience with the wise men and sent them to Bethlehem with the scheming appeal “As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:8 NIV). We know the rest of this story that ended tragically with every baby boy in the Bethlehem area being slaughtered at Herod’s command (Matthew 2:16-18).

It was into this politically charged Herodian ruled world, when his capital Jerusalem was at its Roman and Jewish architectural zenith, that the long awaited Messiah would be born, would live, and would die. It was this magnificent Temple that the Messiah would call “My Father’s house” and a “house of prayer for all nations.” There, Jesus would be dedicated as an infant, visit during the feasts from His youth, and cleanse twice at the beginning and end of His three year ministry.

To be continued in my next blog post. Your comments and feedback are always welcome. 

January 10th, 2018 · by Tom Stuart · Check this out!, Church History, News & Reflections

Jerusalem’s Relentless March to Divine Destiny – Pt 5

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.”  Isaiah 49:14-16 NIV

The restoration of the Temple in 516 BC and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem seventy two years later in 444 BC once again secured the Jewish people in their identity and in their relationship with God. It established a focal point for their worship, prayer, and sacrifices. Even those Jews yet scattered among the surrounding nations in the Diaspora, first dating from 700 BC, found solace in being able to pray toward the Temple in Jerusalem as Solomon had prescribed in his dedication prayer (1 Kings 8:29-30, 35,38,42, 44, & 48). With successive generations of Persian kings, plagued by internal power struggles, the influence of their empire began to wane. This gave opportunity for a period of Jewish self-rule by a dynasty of high priests claiming to have descended from the Davidic priest Zadok. Unfortunately these priests, like the secular rulers of the empire of which they were a part, fell prey to infighting and division themselves. Peace and stability in Jerusalem under their rule could not be sustained and sedition within their ranks eventually led to the murder of a high priest over contention as to who should control the riches of the Temple treasury. News of the unrest in Jerusalem gave incentive for the Persian governor to attack Jerusalem and loot its wealth.

While all this was going on the Greek nation of Macedonia was growing in strength both militarily and geographically. As all the city states fell under their control, the Macedonians began to set their sights on the Persian Empire purposing to take revenge for its previous invasions of their land. In 336 BC a twenty year old named Alexander succeeded his father to the throne becoming the king of Macedonia. Within three years Alexander the Great, as he would be called, had conquered the western Persian Empire and began to march south along the Mediterranean coast to Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Josephus records that a most cooperative high priest welcomed the conqueror at the gates of the city with much pomp and circumstance. Remarkably the priest then led him to the Temple where Alexander is said to have made a sacrifice to the God of the Jews. Some historians question the plausibility of this account. Regardless, it is a fact that Alexander, like Cyrus before him, did choose to accommodate the Jews by deciding to support the continuance of their Temple worship. Obviously the hand of God was upon Alexander just as it had been upon Cyrus. Perhaps Alexander’s greatness could be attributed as much to this kindness as to the fact that he was undefeated in battle and established one of the largest empire of the ancient world before age 30. Leaving Jerusalem, never to return again, he continued south to conquer Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria as its new capital. It would eventually become one of the great centers of influence in the Mediterranean world for almost a thousand years. From there he marched east completing his triumph of the Persian Empire and eventually extended his kingdom all the way to Pakistan.

In 323, while ruling from Babylon, Alexander just 33 years of age, became mysteriously ill. As he lay upon his death bed and subordinates questioned him as to whom he would leave his kingdom, he replied “To the strongest.” This set in motion a power struggle between generals which resulted in the division of Alexander’s empire into two dynasties that lasted for over 250 years. Known as the Hellenistic period (from the Greek word Hellas for Greece) the influence of Greek culture with its arts, architecture, philosophy, science, and language permeated every aspect of life. In the North was the Seleucid Empire which included Greece, Turkey, Syria, Persia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the South the Ptolemaic Dynasty ruled Egypt. Judea had the misfortune of being situated between these two empires and quickly became their battleground. Jerusalem changed hands six times within the first twenty years.

Finally in 301 BC the Ptolemy’s took control of Jerusalem and ruled it for one hundred years. Initially they rampaged through the city and carried off half the inhabitants into exile. However, sixteen years later when King Ptolemy II took the throne he reversed its fortunes by granting favor to the Jews. During his reign from Alexandria he ordered the translation of the Jewish Tanakh (Law, Prophets, and Writings), into Greek. Legend has it that it was completed in just seventy-two days by seventy-two Alexandrian Jewish scholars who, working independently, miraculously came up with identical translations. It became known as the Septuagint, taken from the Greek word septuaginta which means seventy. This was a hallmark event for the Jews, and later for the Christians, as they sought to spread the faith. Greek continued as the internationally accepted language for centuries to come. The Septuagint translation made the Bible accessible for virtually everyone to read. Judah thrived during this period with Jerusalem ruled by high priests and the minting of its own coins inscribed with its Hebrew name “Yehud.” As an aside, it should be noted that the term “Jew,” meaning “from the Tribe of Judah” is derived from this word.

In 201 BC the Northern Empire of the Seleucids overthrew the Egyptian Ptolemy’s taking control of Jerusalem. Under their indulgent rule Temple life continued as the center of Jewish life, the feasts were celebrated and pilgrims poured into the city. The high priest at the time, a man called Simon the Just, was a paragon of virtue ruling both the political and religious affairs of the city. The first use of the term “theocracy” was coined by Josephus the historian to describe his reign. Things took a turn for the worse however in 167 BC when Antiochus, an evil Seleucid king turned on Jerusalem. Capturing the city, he slaughtered thousands, destroyed the walls, and forbade upon pain of death possession of the Torah, all Jewish observances, and services in the Temple. To heap insult upon injury he desecrated the Temple with the flesh of pigs, revelry, harlotry, and idol sacrifice. While not the first, nor the last, it was a foreshadowing of the “abomination of desolation” predicted by Daniel to be an end time occurrence in a future Third Temple (Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11).

This intolerable oppression sparked a Jewish uprising against the Seleucids led by an old priest named Mattathias and his five sons. Although he died soon afterward, his third son Judah took the lead and finally succeeded in conquering all of Judea and he recovered control of Jerusalem in 164 BC. After four hundred years, Jewish independence was finally restored. The Temple, deserted and overgrown, was reclaimed and the Holy of Holies was rededicated in an eight day ceremony. Despite a shortage of oil, the candelabra miraculously continued to burn and never went out. Though some hold this aspect of the account to be a myth, this memorable event and the rededication of the Temple is annually celebrated among the Jews today as Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. This triumph began a one hundred year Jewish reign by the Maccabees, a name given to the sons of Mattathias. According to Jewish tradition the word “Maccabee” was derived from a Hebrew acronym for the verse “Who is like You among the heavenly powers, Adonai!” which had become their battle cry. Also known as the Hasmonean Dynasty, some of their early history is recorded in the Old Testament apocryphal books of First and Second Maccabees.

The century long Maccabean rule, like every dynastic era before them lacked sustainable peace and tranquility. It was fraught with ongoing battles with the Seleucids, the death or capture of all the ruling brothers, and infighting and atrocities perpetrated by their descendants. Finally in 64 BC with the ascendancy of the Roman Empire, Pompey its all-conquering general, took Syria ending the Seleucid kingdom. He then descended upon Jerusalem and bombarded the fortified Temple Mount with catapults for three months. Taking advantage of the pious Jews who were marking the Sabbath with a fast, he stormed the Temple, killed the priests guarding the altar and entered the Holy of Holies. Looking around, he realized there was nothing there of significant value save the sanctity of the space and withdrew. Twelve thousand Jews died in the conflict, fortifications were destroyed, and the Maccabean monarchy abolished. Judea and Jerusalem were now ruled by Rome. In spite of four centuries of wars, occupation, profane abuse and misuse, the Second Temple was still standing. The only plausible explanation for its miraculous preservation is that her walls are indeed, ever before the Lord (Isaiah 49:16).

To be continued in my next blog post. Your comments and feedback are always welcome. 

December 30th, 2017 · by Tom Stuart · Check this out!, Church History, News & Reflections

Jerusalem’s Relentless March to Divine Destiny – Pt 4

“For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place.” Jeremiah 29:10 NIV

The fall of Jerusalem, deportation of its inhabitants, and destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BC did not alter God’s ultimate plans for them. He had sealed the destiny of the land and the Jewish people dating back fifteen hundred centuries with His promises to Abraham. In addition God had revealed His eternal purposes for Jerusalem and the Temple mount to David and Solomon four hundred years earlier. Nevertheless, this catastrophic event did set in motion an unimaginable cycle of judgments and restorative miracles, the repercussions of which are still unfolding today in God’s relentless pursuit to fulfill that destiny.

Tragically this watershed event came as a result of the Jewish people’s disregard for God’s repeated prophetic warnings dating back to the reign of Solomon. The culmination of His urgent appeals for repentance were persistently expressed mainly through two prophets: Jeremiah (626-586 BC) residing in Jerusalem and Ezekiel (593-571 BC) who was with the exiles in Babylon.

Jeremiah’s numerous prophecies forecasting Jerusalem’s imminent demise came to pass just as God had said. But all was not lost. In a dramatic turn of events his pronouncements regarding restoration would prove to be even more surprisingly accurate. Unfortunately Jeremiah did not live to see their fulfillment. In his identification with the remnant left by the Babylonians in Judah, he ended up fleeing for refuge with them to Egypt and is not heard from again. God through Jeremiah’s letter to the first wave of deportees in 597 had promised that in seventy years He would visit them and bring them back again to Jerusalem (see Jeremiah 29:10 above). In the meantime He encouraged them to make the most of their exile by settling down, building houses, planting gardens, increasing in number, and even praying for the welfare of the city where they were residing (Jeremiah 29:5-7 NIV).

In addition, Jeremiah had another seventy year prophecy, with a different application. This was given before the first deportation in 605 BC. Unlike the restoration prophecy, this was specific as to God’s intended judgment upon the Babylonians. It is significant because it predicts how the return of the exiles to Jerusalem would be made possible. “But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation” for their guilt and “repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands” (Jeremiah 25:12-14 NIV).

One of the themes we shall see as we continue to recount the turbulent up and down history of Jerusalem is God’s sovereignty over the nations in fulfilling His purposes. Jeremiah underscores this sovereignty by referring to God as the “King of the nations” (Jeremiah 10:7 NIV). David and many other prophets echo the same in their writings “Dominion belongs to the Lord and He rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:28 NIV).

In 539 BC, as predicted, Babylon was overthrown with the ascendancy of the Persian Empire led by Cyrus the Great. The circumstances surrounding the defeat of the Babylonians proved to be a direct fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. The fact that it happened sixty-six years after the 605 BC date when he gave the prophecy closely approximates his prediction that it would take place in seventy years. It should be noted that the start of the seventy year countdown is debated by scholars and that the number seventy is frequently used in Scriptures to convey a sense of completion and/or perfection.

Cyrus turned out to be God’s chosen instrument to initiate the restoration process. When he defeated the Babylonians he inherited Jerusalem. Reversing Babylonian policy Cyrus was favorably disposed toward both Jerusalem and the Jews. In a dramatic turn of events he declared “‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them” (Ezra 1:2-3 NIV). With that astounding commission, Cyrus appointed a Jewish prince to govern, released 5,400 gold and silver articles belonging to the Temple, and sent them along 42,360 exiles back to Jerusalem.

When the exiles returned they began rebuilding the Temple on its original site in 537 BC. Immediately opposition arose from the enemies of the Jews in the surrounding area. Added political turmoil within the Persian Empire with the unexpected death of Cyrus caused the work to grind to a halt in 530. In 522, Daniel, an exile still in Babylon, was reading the prophecy of Jeremiah 29:10 when God moved upon his heart to fast and pray for its fulfillment. He realized that the seventy years of desolation predicted by Jeremiah, since the fall of Jerusalem in 586, was drawing to an end (Daniel 9:1-19). Two years later, in answer to Daniel’s prayer, God raised up two prophets among the exiles who had returned, Haggai and Zechariah, to prophetically call the people to rise up and complete the building. Led by their governor Zerubbabel and Joshua the priest an appeal was made to Darius, the new ruler of Persia, citing the decree of Cyrus. With the hand of God upon Darius, just as it had been upon Cyrus, a new decree was issued by him in their favor. “Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site. . . Their expenses are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates, so that the work will not stop” (Ezra 6:7-8 NIV).

With that proclamation, the sacred task was once again renewed with vigor and the Temple was completed four years later in 516. Although this Second Temple did not approximate the glory of Solomon’s Temple it sufficed in re-establishing the house of God on Mount Moriah where prayer and sacrifice could be offered in response to God’s requirements. Its construction had been exactly seventy years since its destruction and an exact fulfillment of Jeremiah 29:10. This seventy year passage of time in accordance with God’s judgment upon Jerusalem is confirmed in several other passages of Scripture (Zechariah 1:2, 7:5 & 2 Chronicles 36:21).

There was much yet to be done in order to complete the restoration process. In approximately 458, Ezra, a priestly scribe, returned from Babylon to Jerusalem to teach its inhabitants the laws and ways of God. In 444 BC Nehemiah, a cup bearer to Darius’ grandson Artaxerxes, prayed and appealed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls. Granted favor by God, he was appointed governor and sent by the King with a military escort and provisions to do just that. Nehemiah was a gifted visionary leader. He rallied the local inhabitants in a cooperative effort and was able to rebuild the walls within fifty two days. After its completion “the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it and the houses had not yet been rebuilt” (Nehemiah 7:6 NIV).” In order to repopulate it Nehemiah held a lottery and arranged for one in ten inhabitants in the land to resettle within Jerusalem.

It was during this time period that the last Old Testament book was written by the prophet Malachi. Addressing the religious malaise of the people and their priests, Malachi pleaded with those restored to the land to renew their covenant with God. The last chapter of his book transcends that era by catapulting the reader into a future time when on the “day of the Lord” God will reveal Himself as the “sun of righteousness.” The last two verses convey a timeless Messianic promise and warning which Jews and Christians are looking yet to see how this will fully come to pass. “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction” (Malachi 4:5-6 NIV).

With these sober words the Biblical historical record ceases for four hundred years and what is known as the intertestamental period begins. This period was not however a dormant time for Jerusalem and the Jewish people. God’s dealings with them would continue with new oppressors, occupiers, protectors, and liberators.

To be continued in my next blog post. Your comments and feedback are always welcome.

December 21st, 2017 · by Tom Stuart · Check this out!, Church History, News & Reflections

The Rise and Fall of the First Temple 

 

“I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices.” 2 Chronicles 7:12 NIV 

David’s stunning encounter with the angel of the Lord on Mount Moriah so moved him that he declared “The house of the Lord God is to be here, and also the altar of burnt offering for Israel” (1 Chronicles 22:1 NIV). From that day on David began extensive preparations for the building of the temple including raising money, assembling building materials, and readying his son Solomon to build it. Construction on the Temple began after David’s death and Solomon’s accession. It took seven years. When it was completed it was glorious to behold. It was adorned on the outside with precious stones and on the inside with intricately carved wood paneling, doors, doorframes, and ceiling beams all of which were overlaid with fine gold. The entire structure was an unparalleled home for the ark of the covenant with the shekinah glory of God resting above it between the two cherubim.

At the dedication of the Temple, following Solomon’s prayer, “fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (2 Chronicles 7:1 NIV). This took place around 950 BC. Later the Lord appeared to Solomon one night reassuring him again that his prayer had been heard. “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices” (7:12). But it was much more than a simple personal reassurance. God’s intent was to spell out for all the people of Israel, including every succeeding generation, three predictions that would shape their destiny for nearly three millennia. First, He promised to answer their prayers. “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place” (7:14-15 emphasis mine). Second, He confirmed once again the sacredness of Mount Moriah and the temple built upon it. “I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be here forever. My eyes and my heart will always be here” (2 Chronicles 7:16 NIV emphasis mine). And finally, accompanying these eternal promises of answered prayer and His lasting presence in this place was also a solemn warning. Should Israel turn away from Him and worship other gods, He cautioned, they would be uprooted from the land and made an object of ridicule among the nations. The Temple He predicted, would “become a heap of rubble” (7:21).

Tragically, in an incomprehensible turn of events, it was Solomon himself who would be the first to ignore the warning and forsake his devotion to God in order to worship false gods. His love for foreign women led him to build places of worship for their detestable gods on a nearby hill, likely within the gaze of the Temple itself. God was angered and the consequence was His judgment in splitting Israel into two kingdoms. Following Solomon’s death, at the beginning of the reign of his son Rehoboam ten tribes broke away. These tribes formed the Northern Kingdom, also known as Israel and established their capital at Shechem in Samaria. The smaller southern kingdom was called Judah, and with the tribe Benjamin, retained control of Jerusalem and the Temple. In an effort to keep his people from traveling to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the temple, Jeroboam, the king of Israel set up two golden calves in Samaria at Bethel and Dan encouraging his people to sacrifice there. Needless to say that was the death knell for Israel. No less than eight different dynastic families succeeded one another through intrigues and assassinations. Within two hundred years the Northern Kingdom, under God’s judgment, fell to the Assyrians (modern day Iraq) and the ten tribes were carried off into captivity.

The Assyrians now set their sights on conquering Judah and Jerusalem. During the reign of King Hezekiah in approximately 700 BC, Assyria’s great king Sennacherib surrounded Jerusalem besieging it with his army and issuing dire threats to all dwelling within. Hezekiah had fortified the city and now resorted to the Temple to pray for deliverance. Undoubtedly he did so being fully cognizant of God’s three promises to Solomon 250 years earlier. In accordance with a prophecy given by Isaiah and a miraculous intervention, God answered his prayer. An angel of the Lord smote the Assyrian camp with a deadly plague in the night causing them to pack up in the morning and return to their capital Nineveh. Not long afterward, in a fitting stroke of divine justice, Sennacherib’s own sons assassinated him while he was worshipping in his pagan temple.

Unfortunately, Jerusalem’s rule by a praying king, which afforded God’s protective covering from foreign invaders, was only temporary. Most kings in the Davidic lineage, unlike Hezekiah, were evil men more intent upon serving themselves than seeking God. When Hezekiah died, his son Manasseh ascended to the throne and promptly proved to be the wickedest king that Judah ever had. He reversed all his father’s reforms, set up altars to idols in the Temple, offered his children in sacrifice, practiced witchcraft, and consulted spiritists. Interestingly, Manasseh had been conceived during Hezekiah’s fifteen year life extension. It had been granted to Hezekiah by God in response to his cry to be healed from a terminal disease. Given Manasseh’s catalytic role in precipitating God’s fast approaching judgments, one wonders if it would have been better for all concerned if Hezekiah had died earlier, rather than living long enough to father Manasseh.

Nevertheless the die of judgment had been cast. Just two years after the end of Manasseh’s fifty-five year reign in 642 BC his grandson Josiah became king. Like his great grandfather Hezekiah, Josiah proved to be a godly reformer. He repaired the Temple, recommitted Judah to obeying God’s law, and reinstituted the Passover. But it was too little, too late. A cataclysmic shift in world power that would spell the demise of a Jewish ruled Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple was already set in motion. In 626 the Assyrians lost control of Babylon and in 612 their capital Nineveh fell to the Babylonians, In 609 Necho, the Egyptian Pharaoh, in his bid for regional dominion, marched north on his way to do battle with the Babylonians. In a strange turn of events, good king Josiah while seeking to defend Judah and stop Pharaoh’s advance, was killed in battle. Within three months Jerusalem fell under the rule of Egypt. Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz who had been selected by the people to succeed him was dethroned and carried off to Egypt. In his place Necho appointed his older brother Jehoiakim to reign as the vassal king of Judah and Jerusalem.

Egypt’s control of Judah was short lived. In 605 when the Egyptians finally engaged the Babylonians in battle at Carchemish, located on what is now the border of Turkey and Syria, they were routed. With Egypt’s defeat Judah now came under Babylonian rule. In 597 when King Jehoiakim decided to rebel against them, defying the warnings of Jeremiah the prophet, the Babylonian army led by King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem. Taking the city, he plundered the Temple of its treasures and destroyed the vessels of gold “which Solomon king of Israel had made, as the Lord had foretold” (2 Kings 24:13). He carried all this booty, along with King Jehoiakim in bronze shackles and 10,000 other nobles, craftsmen, and military men back to Babylon. Included among the exiles were the future prophets Ezekiel and Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar made Jehoiakim’s eighteen year old son Jehoiachin king in his stead. But after just three months and ten days he must have come to the conclusion that Jehoiachin wasn’t up to the task and sent for him to come to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar then placed his uncle, Zedekiah on the throne. In the ninth year of his reign, Zedekiah, having learned nothing from his brother Jehoiakim, decided once again, in defiance of more prophetic warnings from Jeremiah, to rebel against the King of Babylon. Big mistake! This time around, his fate as the king and the fate of Jerusalem would be catastrophic.

In response to this, Nebuchadnezzar “came with all his army against Jerusalem and laid siege to it. And they built siegeworks all around it” (2 Kings 25:1 ESV). During the blockade that lasted eighteen months, the famine was so severe in the city that people wandered the streets in a daze searching dunghills for scraps to eat, degraded and depraved to the point of stooping “to eat the flesh of their sons and daughters” (Jeremiah 19:9 NIV). In 586 BC The Babylonians finally broke into the city, setting it ablaze. Woman were ravished, princes hanged by their hands, and temple priests put to death. King Zedekiah, in an attempt to flee the city was captured. They slaughtered his sons before his eyes, then put out his eyes, bound him in chains, and took him to Babylon.

A month later, Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, was sent by King Nebuchadnezzar back to Jerusalem to utterly destroy it. He broke down the walls around Jerusalem. He burned the Temple and every great house to the ground, and destroyed everything of value in Jerusalem. His men broke in pieces the bronze pillars and round bronze basin of the Temple. “He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials” (2 Chronicles 36:18 NIV). The Ark of the Covenant vanished forever. The remnant in Jerusalem who had escaped the sword and conflagration were carried off to Babylon in a second great deportation. Only some of the poorest of the land were left behind, assigned to be vinedressers and plowmen. In the aftermath Jerusalem looked like a desolate wasteland. The charred remains of the city and the Temple had become “a heap of rubble” and the people had been “uprooted from the land” just as God had warned Solomon (2 Chronicles 7:20-21 NIV). The Temple – as the embodiment of all it meant to be God’s chosen people, a nation of kings and priests – had stood for less than 400 years.

“The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed festivals. All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her young women grieve, and she is in bitter anguish. Her foes have become her masters; her enemies are at ease. The LORD has brought her grief because of her many sins. Her children have gone into exile, captive before the foe. All the splendor has departed from Daughter Zion” (Lamentations 1:4-6 NIV).

To be continued in my next blog post. Your comments and feedback are always welcome. 

December 18th, 2017 · by Tom Stuart · Check this out!, Church History, News & Reflections

The Genesis of the Temple Mount 

 

“So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.’” Genesis 22:14 NIV 

The story of Jerusalem and its eternal destiny are inextricably tied to a 37 acre parcel of land which sits upon the top of a mountain in the Old City. Cherished as the Temple Mount or Mountain of the House of God by Jews and Christians, and the Noble Sanctuary or Haram al-Sharif by Moslems, it is the most contested piece of real estate on earth. The history of Jerusalem can be told most succinctly by recounting the story of those who exercised control of that revered property and the sanctuaries they either erected and/or destroyed upon it. And so I will begin there.

The history of this mountain dates back to its first mention four thousand years ago in the book of Genesis. It was there, referred to by God as Mount Moriah, that Abraham was commanded to journey in order to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:2). When the angel of the Lord intervened and provided a sacrifice ram to die in Isaac’s stead, Abraham in thanksgiving made a memorial declaration. “So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided’” (Genesis 22:14 NIV). With that pronouncement, Mount Moriah, the place of sacrifice and God’s provision, forever became hallowed ground. The significance of God’s choice of Abraham to be His instrument to do this is worth noting. It was a fait accompli given He had already made covenant with Abraham designating him the father of the Jewish people, nation, and religion.

It was not until a thousand years later, approximately 1000 BC, that the narrative of this holy place is once again resumed. When David became the king of a united Israel in Saul’s stead, his first order of business was to establish a capital. His choice for its location was a Jebusite stronghold known as Jebus. Upon conquering this enemy fortress he took up residence there and called it Zion – the City of David (1 Chronicles 11:1-8).

Several years later the nation was smitten with a plague as a judgment for David’s pride in taking a census of Israel’s army. In response David’s heart smote him. God relented and just as Jerusalem was about to be destroyed He revealed to David an angel of the Lord withdrawing his hand of judgment. The angel was standing on a threshing floor owned by a Jebusite name Araunah and that threshing floor just happened to be atop Mount Moriah, which is adjacent to David’s Mount Zion. God then commanded David through the prophet Gad to build an altar to the Lord on that spot in which to sacrifice offerings on behalf of the land for the plague to stop. In order to do that David insisted on buying the plot of ground from Araunah, saying “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24 NIV).

Like the choice of Abraham who had preceded him, God’s selection of David, to be the one to re-hallow this ground, is imbued with eternal significance. King David is the one who would prepare the materials for the construction of the Holy Temple, select its site, and provide the plans for his son Solomon to build it. It is from his offspring that the Old Testament prophecies testify will proceed the “Messiah, son of David.” This Messiah is the one for whom the Jews pray will return to build the Third Temple; and whom Christians acknowledge has already come in the person of Jesus Christ.

It is critically important to pause and reflect upon the foundational significance of these two historical events on Mount Moriah. The similarities are remarkable and underscore emphatically God’s initiative to set aside this ground above all other places on earth as His redemptive meeting place with His people. The two men whom God used are both Judeo-Christian fathers of the faith. Both were sovereignly directed to this place, had the angel of the Lord appear to them, miraculously experienced God’s deliverance, worshipped God there through offering sacrifices, and designated the location as eternally hallowed ground. All debate over the origins of what is now called the Temple Mount or Noble Sanctuary and ultimately Jerusalem’s eternal destiny must begin with acknowledging these facts. They provide the only legitimate reference point from which meaning can be derived in reckoning with the fate of that mountain over the past three thousand years. In that light therefore, let us proceed to review the history of this mountain of the Lord. To be continued in my next blog post.

Your comments and feedback are always welcome.