Under the leadership of King Herod the Great, Jerusalem became one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and was a major tourist attraction. The Temple was the show piece of this great city. Geographically and visually, the Temple was the dominant feature of the area, and could be seen wherever you were in the area. It was larger than the Acropolis at Athens. Its massive white shining marble and gold plated doors would shine in the sun. Under Herod, a very small country once again exacted great importance, and commanded attention way out of proportion to its size. The noted Roman author Pliny wrote that “Jerusalem was the most splendid city of the East. It increased in population at least three times when Pilgrims came from all over the world, which brought great prosperity to its economy.” Pliny was speaking of the three annual Jewish festivals that all Jews were supposed to attend. Herod accomplished this all for himself, but little did he know that in the providence of God, the rebuilding of the Temple and restoration of the prominence of Jerusalem would set the stage for the coming of the Messiah.
Herod’s earlier years had been marked by intrigue, war, rebellion, and family treachery, but by 20 BC, he was solidly entrenched as King of Judea and the surrounding areas. He ruled by the good pleasure of Rome, and Rome loved him for his ability to keep the peace and exact taxes from the people. Herod had become massively wealthy, and he desired to use that wealth to build his legacy, and showcase his genius as an engineer, planner, and builder. The Second Temple that had been built in 516 BC had never had the splendor of the original, and in Herod’s time had fallen into disrepair. This was puzzling to Jewish scholars because the prophet Haggai had predicted that the glory of the Second Temple would surpass that of the first. In Haggai 2:3-9, it appears to me that the prophet not only predicted great glory to the second temple, but in verse 9 when God promised “in this place I shall give peace”, He was referring to the peace made by Christ. Herod saw the remodeling of the Second Temple as a grand project to improve the image of his kingdom internationally. It would be a chance to prove his Jewish piety and placate the Jewish religious leaders, and of course reveal to all his genius.
During the years of domination by the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, the Jews had been dispersed all over the Mediterranean world. Every significant city in Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and North Africa had a Jewish population. Historians estimate the Jewish population in Rome during the time of Herod to be at least 50,000. After Herod rebuilt the Temple there was a resurgence of all those dispersed Jews to return to Jerusalem for Passover and the other festivals. In Matthew 21:9-11, the author repeatedly uses the term “multitudes” to describe the crowds in Jerusalem that lined the road on the Mt. of Olives outside the city, at the gate of the city, and in the city to welcome Jesus the King on what we call Palm Sunday. In John’s account in John12, he mentions a multitude of Greek Jews who were crowding around wanting to see Jesus. Did you ever wonder where these multitudes came from, or why they happened to be there? The newly restored Second Temple of Herod had a big part to play in those multitudes. It was the international draw.
Construction of Herod’s Temple
About 20 BC, King Herod developed a vision to rebuild the Temple to a condition even greater than the original First Temple of Solomon. Herod’s plan involved much more than just restoring the actual Temple building itself. He wanted to build an entire Temple complex of buildings, retail area, administrative offices, and meeting places. The sheer size of what he wanted to do seemed impossible because the Temple was situated on top of a mountain with a severe drop from north to south. His original plan had the necessary dimensions of 1600 feet from north to south and 900 feet from east to west. The insurmountable problem was that Mount Moriah was not even that big. Problems like these prevented others from doing the impossible, but not Herod. He would add the mount to the north by building retaining walls and filling in the space between with landfill. Even more ambitious was his plan to level the entire top of Mount Moriah, and build a rectangular platform on top of it. He would be raising the whole top of the mountain, and making the Temple even more visible and dominating to the area.
Before he could actually build this monstrosity, Herod had to pull off one of the most masterful political balancing acts ever. On the one hand, he had to get permission from his superiors in Rome, and on the other hand, he had to get the support of the Jewish religious leaders who were the most contentious people on earth. They never even agreed with each other, and had no love for Herod whom they viewed as an outsider. The common people in Israel hated the taxation imposed on them, and assumed they would have to pay for such a project. Everybody had their “hand out” when Herod began negotiations, wanting to know, “What’s in it for me?” Herod agreed to pay for it himself, and he would employ 1000 priests to build the Temple building itself so that only Levitical priests would actually come in contact with the holy building itself. Herod had to agree with the priests that there would be no cessation of religious services including the regular sacrifices. Somehow this was accomplished on sight, and this is why Herod’s Temple actually continued to be called the Second Temple even though it was actually a third Temple. Most people think that the whole Temple Mount complex must have been built by slave labor, but it was not. Herod employed thousands of stone cutters, masons, and laborers. Herod was able to convince Rome that this project would have tremendous economic benefits, and thus increase the revenue flowing to Rome. At the end of the day, it was that rare event that pleased everyone.
In 2007 archaeologists found the quarry where Herod had purchased the huge stones that formed the foundation and the walls around the Temple Mount. These stones weighed from 28 to 628 tons. Fortunately, it was a short distance away and down hill. Once the huge stones were cut and transported, they were laid near the mount, and given a number, measured, then final chiseling and carving so that they all fit precisely together. Herod dug a trench around the entire mountain in which he would lay the large stones that would form the retaining wall around the mountain. Cranes, levers, pulleys, and a lot of labor were used to put them in place. Giant underground vaults with arches were built on the south side to lift the mountain up, and then a giant flat platform was created and built to level the entire top of what had been Mount Moriah. The edge of the platform and the retaining walls still remain, and the famous western wall or “Wailing Wall” is part of the original retaining wall. The southern wall was designed as a grand entrance with a great stairway leading up to the actual entrances to the Temple Mount complex. Thousands of ceremonial baths or “mikvas” have been discovered outside the entrance so that worshippers would ritually cleanse themselves before entering. This brings up an important issue of the water supply. With all the baths at the entrance, and the priests baths outside the Temple itself, and the need for water to wash away the carnage from the thousands of sacrifices done there—how do you get that much water to the top of a mountain?
Herod built collection pools south of Bethlehem about 14 miles away. Then he built an aqueduct carrying the water to the north side of the Temple Mount. Herod did a masterpiece of building pools and channels around and under the Temple Mount, and of routing the water where it was needed. Man made cisterns have been discovered underground which supplied water for the priests and the mikvas. There were also well engineered sewers below the Temple. You can imagine the need to wash away not only the human waste, but the heavy load of blood of all the thousands of sacrifices.
The Temple building itself took about 2-3 years to build, but the entire complex on top of the new platform took at least 46 years according to John 2:20. Historians tell us that there were thousands employed still building as late as 65 AD. The Temple was made of imported white marble with gold plated doors. The gates to the Temple Mount were bronze. The main gates to the Temple Mount were on the west and south. The south entrance was typically used by the public. For Passover, a pilgrim would come to the south side where he would exchange his money for Temple money, and purchase a lamb or pigeon to be sacrificed. He would check his animal, visit the mikva baths to purify himself, then head up the southern stairs that were three stories high. He would walk through the gate onto the mount platform into the Court of the Gentiles, which was actually a retail bazaar with vendors, food, money changers, guides for hire, and priests everywhere giving instructions. There were Porticos all around the entire Temple Mount. These were covered colonnades that gave shade to large outdoor meeting areas. These are where crowds would gather to hear teachers.
Walking north, the pilgrim would go to a wall separating the Court of the Gentiles from the courts that only Jews could go into. Josephus wrote that there were 10 entrances, mostly for the priests, but the Jews typically would enter through the east side of this wall into the Court of Women. This court was the largest of the inner court, and there was a lot of music, dancing, and singing there. The next court was the Court of the Israelites exclusively for Jewish men, and was where they could actually see the activities of the priests making the sacrifices. The inner Court of the Priests was only for priests of the tribe of Levi, and was where they performed the sacrifices. The Temple building was in this court, and was separated into two rooms. In the outer room the priests worked burning incense, maintaining the Menorah (lamp), and the table of show bread. The inner room had originally contained the Ark of the Covenant in which the Tablets of the Law resided, but only the High Priest could go in there and only on the Day of Atonement.
The Court of the Gentiles and the Court of Women were strictly innovations of Herod. Solomon’s Temple and the original Second Temple did not have these. These new courts allowed for much bigger crowds, tourists, and a lot of business to be done.
Herod’s Temple in the Gospel Accounts
The Temple played an important role in the ministry of Jesus. We first see it in the birth narrative when His parents bring the Baby Jesus to Jerusalem to “present Him to the Lord” in Luke 2:22-38. In verse 25-27, His parents brought Jesus into the Temple where the Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that Jesus is the Messiah that he had been expecting and praying for. Then later in the Temple a prophetess, Anna also identified Jesus. The next scene in Luke 2:39-52 was the story of Jesus at 12 years old in the Temple teaching the teachers who were amazed at His teaching. The next time we see Jesus in the Temple is in John 2:15 where in the beginning of His ministry after the age of 30 He “drove the moneychangers out of the temple” the first time. It was here that Jesus used the Temple as an image of His body being torn down (crucified), but raised up in three days. From that time on Jesus would teach in the Temple area whenever He came to Jerusalem for one of the festivals. The Gospel of Matthew emphasizes the Temple in the Passion Week leading to the crucifixion. Jesus’ teaching to the multitudes during the Passion Week occurred in the Porticos on the Temple Mount, and His great debates with the religious leaders in Matt.21-23 occurred there as well.
The awesome prophetic sermon we call the Olivet Discourse found in Matt. 24 was provoked by questions the disciples asked about the Temple. In Matt.24:1, Jesus was leaving the Temple after ministering there all day. He and His disciples headed east across the Kidron Valley and up the Mount of Olives, but they stopped to gaze at the splendor of the Temple Mount. This is when Jesus predicted that the Temple would soon be completely destroyed because the nation did not receive its Messiah. Naturally his disciples asked when, and also when His second coming would occur. Possibly one of the most important New Testament roles that the Temple played occurred in Acts 2 after the Holy Spirit indwelt the Apostles. On the Day of Pentecost when hundreds of thousands of Jewish pilgrims from all over were in Jerusalem, the Apostles went to the Temple and preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Three thousand souls believed in Jesus right there, and the church was born. Visiting Jerusalem it is hard to imagine a huge crowd of foreigners being gathered anywhere else. They were there for the religious festival, and would definitely go there as their destination. Peter mixed opportunity with delivery, and the Holy Spirit did the rest.
The Destruction of Herod’s Temple
When Herod died in 4 BC, his kingdom was divided up between his sons who were also called Herod, but in time they governed so poorly that they were replaced by Roman governors. Thus, by the time of Christ, Pilate is the Governor of Judea, and Herod Antipas is only the Governor of the Galilee. Josephus wrote that in 66 AD, a new governor was appointed who was a Jew hater who “gave us no option other than to fight the Romans, as we thought it would be better to be destroyed at once instead of little by little”. In a great rebellion, the Jews initially took the country back from the small Roman garrisons, but Rome sent Titus with many legions that laid siege to Jerusalem, taking the city and the Temple in 70 AD. Most of the city and all of the Temple was utterly destroyed just as Jesus predicted.
The Providence of God
Don’t forget that the First Temple Solomon built had been destroyed along with the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC. All of the prophets predicted that the Jews would return and rebuild, and as I said, Haggai predicted the Second Temple would be even greater and bring peace between God and man (concerning Jesus). Daniel, who prophesied from Babylon over 600 years before Christ, even foresaw the three great kingdoms that would have dominion over Israel from that time until the final dispersion. Daniel even named the first three as Babylon, Persia, and Greece, and from the way he described it, the fourth was obviously Rome. The prophecies of these men were incredibly bold considering the fallen nature of Israel at the time. How could they know that Jerusalem would be rebuilt, the Temple rebuilt, all restored to its former glory, and the Messiah would come to Jerusalem to bless the whole world, all while Israel was in subjection to these foreign powers? Daniel explained it by saying, “There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (Dan.2:28). Daniel also gave a cryptic, yet accurate dating of when the Messiah would enter Jerusalem.
It is hard for me to imagine that God would use evil nations like Persia, Greece, and Rome to carry out His plan. It is even harder to imagine God using a megalomaniac like Herod to build His Temple that would play such a big part in Jesus’ ministry. Can you imagine an Arab King Herod over Israel under the dominion of a ruthless nation of Rome building the Temple just in time so that the Jewish Messiah could enter Jerusalem and sacrifice Himself for the sins of the world? I think Paul said it well in Romans 11:33, “Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!”