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.