Third Tuesday of Advent: Israel's Longing for the Temple

To the ancient Jews, the Temple was the place where heaven and earth overlapped.(1) It was the place where they could meet with God and their assurance of his ongoing presence among them. The Temple's predecessor, the Tabernacle, was the center of Israel's life with God from the time of the Exodus and their journey through the wilderness. King David desired to build a permanent sanctuary for the whole nation, which would be God's home among his people, and his son, Solomon, completed the grandiose project.

N.T. Wright describes: "When Israel's God blessed people, he did so from Zion [the location of the Temple]. When they were far away, they would turn and pray toward the Temple. When pilgrims and worshippers went up to Jerusalem and into the Temple to worship and offer sacrifices, they wouldn't have said that it was as though they were going into heaven. They would have said that they were going to the place where heaven and earth overlapped and interlocked."(2) 

Understanding that the Temple was God's dwelling place helps us to understand the devastation so often expressed in the portions of the Old Testament written after the Babylonian exile, since the Temple was destroyed by the pagan Babylonians in 587 BC. Psalm 79 laments,

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth. They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them. We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us. How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? (Psalm 79:1-5a)

Rebuilding of the Temple began in 538 BC, and was completed in 516 BC, though it never matched the magnificence of its predecessor. Just as there was a sense in which Israel felt it had never fully returned from exile because they were continuously under the oppression of pagan empires, there was a sense in which God had never fully returned to dwell again in his Temple.

A little more than a decade before Jesus' birth, Herod the Great began to renovate, reconstruct, expand, and beautify the Temple. Though Herod had no royal blood, but was more like a warlord whom the Romans gave the title "King of the Jews," perhaps he understood something that had been passed down through all of the generations since King David: it was the king's job to build or restore the Temple and assure that God's people had access to the place where heaven and earth overlapped.

Wright notes: "The principle was established. Part of the central task of the king, should a true king ever emerge, would not only be to establish justice in the world; it would also involve the proper reestablishment of the place where heaven and earth met. The deep human longing for spirituality, for access, to God, would be answered at last."(3)

And so, by the time Jesus was born, almost six hundred years had passed while at least some of the people longed for the Temple to once again have its proper place in their life as a nation. Yet their efforts continually proved incomplete and Herod could build a magnificent building, but he was not and had no intention of being what the scriptures called for Israel's true king to be.

So Israel longed and waited for their Temple, their place where heaven and earth overlapped, and they longed for their Messiah to come and establish it forever.


A Prayer for the Day:

O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

A Prayer for the Week:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.*

Readings for the Week*:

*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) Again, much of what I say here is heavily informed by the writings of N.T. Wright. For more on today's topic, see Chapter Six ("Israel") of Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York, HarperCollins, 2006. (2) Wright, Simply Christian, 64-65. (3) Ibid., 81-82.