The Temple of Solomon
Though nothing survives of Herod’s Temple, the exposed western retaining wall of the Temple Mount platform, famously known as the Wailing Wall, has come to symbolise not only the lost Temple of Herod but the first temple built on this same spot three thousand years ago, the Temple of Solomon.
Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba, became King of Israel in about 962 BC and died in about 922 BC. During the forty years of his reign, he expanded trade and political contacts, centralised the authority of the crown against tribal fragmentation, and engaged in an elaborate building programme. Hisprincipal building works were the royal palace and the Temple in Jerusalem.
Almost all that we know about the planning and building of Solomon’s Temple comes from the Old Testament, in particular the books 2 Samuel, 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles. We also know from 2 Kings about the Assyrians’ capture of Jerusalem in 586 BC, and how they destroyed the city, burnt down Solomon’s Temple, and sent the population in to exile at Babylon where their lament is recorded in Psalms 137:1: ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.’
We are told by the later Book of Ezra that after the Assyrians were over thrown by the Persians, the Persian King Cyrus the Great gave permission for the Jews to return home from their captivity in Babylon and to rebuild their temple. Begun in 520 BC and completed five years later, this Second Temple, also known as the Temple of Zerubbabel, stood on the same spot as the Temple of Solomon and probably followed its plan, but owing to the reduced condition of the Jews at the time it was not possible to reproduce the magnificence of Solomon’s decorations.
Jerusalem remained part of the Persian Empire for two hundred years. But when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian King Darius III at the battle of Issus in 333 BC the entire Middle East came under the rule and cultural influence of the Greeks. In time the Greeks were superseded by the Romans, though much of Greek culture remained. Palestine, as the Romans called it, became part of the Roman Empire in 63 BC, but it was given complete autonomy under Herod the Great, a Jew who had proved himself loyal to Roman interests and was installed as King of the Jews in 37 BC.
By Herod’s time the Second Temple had suffered five centuries of wear and decay, but it would have been sacrilege for him to have torn it down. Instead he incorporated the Second Temple in his plans, enlarging and refurbishing it on a grandiose scale; in effect it was a third temple, though it still counted as the second. But in less than a century Herod’s Temple too was destroyed.
There was yet another temple, and though it never really existed it was described in great detail in the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel. The prophet Ezekiel was among those deported to Babylon where he had a vision that Israel was restored to its former glory and that Solomon’s Temple had risen again from its ruins. Ezekiel’s Temple was the expression of a yearning for the Temple of Solomon, a symbol of a lost ideal. In that sense, and not only for Jews, but for all peoples, the Temple of Solomon has become one of the great legendary buildings of the world, a monument that has inspired imaginations for thousands of years.
The New Testament adds another dimension to Ezekiel’s symbolism of the Temple. After prophesying the destruction of the Temple, Jesus announces in the Gospel of John 2:16, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’, words which are taken as referring to his own death and resurrection, so that in place of the destroyed earthly Temple, Jesus becomes an everlasting divine Temple. For Christians the resurrection, the corner stone of their faith, was expressed in this vision of Jesus as the new Temple, and of Paradise as the new Jerusalem.