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The Destruction of the Biblical First and Second Temples

The first and second temples were demolished through sin.

The first and second temples were demolished through sin.

“Why was the first Sanctuary destroyed? Because of the three evil things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…. But why was the second Sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, observance of precepts, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause. That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as of even gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together.”

—Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b

The First Temple

The Bible teaches us that the temple was a magnificent structure, built by Solomon in approximately 966 BC. The renowned king spared no expense and no labor on this project. It took seven years to complete the temple and finalize all the details, after which they brought in the Ark of the Covenant and had a seven day celebration. This extravagant house of worship, which the Book of 1 Kings describes in great detail, lasted for approximately 380 years. Unfortunately, having a godly structure in which to worship, did not create godly people.

The prophet Jeremiah warned of the temple’s ultimate destruction, admonishing the Israelites that if they continued worshiping idols and being cruel to each other that terrible destruction would befall them. For his troubles, he was persecuted, and the Israelites continued down their calamitous path. The Book of 2 Kings 25:9 details the temple’s destruction. The Babylonians, under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BC had destroyed the temple and exiled the Jews. “He (Nebuzaradan, commander of the imperial guard) set fire to the temple of the Lord, the royal palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down.”

The Second Temple

Fifty years after the temple’s destruction, the Jews were permitted to return to Israel. During that time, Persia had conquered Babylon. The Persians were a much more open minded kingdom, ruled by King Cyrus, the shepherd whom Isaiah had previously prophesied. “Who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”” (Isaiah 44:28) Cyrus was the agent through whom God worked, though he was not a Jew himself. He had a policy of allowing the natives to practice their own religion in every city he ruled.

The book of Ezra, in the first chapter, records the proclamation that Cyrus had sent throughout the kingdom. “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘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. Anyone of His people among you- may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with free will offerings for the temple of God in Judah.” (Ezra 1:2-4) Though it was the Persians who allowed the temple to be rebuilt, it was the Jews themselves who rebuilt the temple, which gave them greater ownership of it. Under the Jews it became a central place of worship and sacrifice. In the year 20 BC Herod the Great (king of Judea under leadership of Rome), refurbished and expanded the temple.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the temple to Jewish society. To the Israelites, the temple was the place where the powers of God Himself spread throughout the world. Jews prayed toward Jerusalem and those praying within the temple prayed towards the innermost room (the Holy of Holies) where the Ark of the Covenant was placed, and which held the very presence of God. The business of temple sacrifice drove Israel’s very economy, a practice which Jesus denounced in Mark 11:16; “’My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.’ But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” Though the Israelites had learned from their forefather’s mistakes, and had ceased the outward sins of worshiping idols and acting violently towards one another, Jesus knew their hearts. They were paying lip service to God, possessing only lukewarm faith, and profiting off temple worship.

Indeed, Jesus knew their hearts. He did not demand showy signs of faith. In fact, He denounced such false piety, insisting that true faith does not hide behind a mask of righteousness. Jesus condemned the hypocrites, calling them “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 25:27), beautiful on the outside, but dead on the inside. It is very easy to see the sins of their fathers, who murdered the prophets and worshipped Baal. It was such sins that led to the destruction of the first temple, and well they knew it. Unfortunately, they were guilty of committing more inward sins. Sins not always visible to each other, but nevertheless, known by God. While they focused on the details of the Mosaic laws, they did so at the expense of mercy, justice, faithfulness, and love. It was those “lesser” sins that led to the destruction of the second temple. In Matthew 24:2, the disciples drew Jesus’ attention to the temple, remarking on its splendor. He warns them that not a single stone will remain unturned.

Jewish Revolt Against Rome

In 70 AD, Jesus’ prediction came true. Four years earlier, the Jews led a revolt against Rome. Tensions between the Jews and the Romans had began before the time of Christ, but came to a head in 66 AD. For decades Rome had been levying confiscatory taxes on Judeans, and they became the appointees of the High Priests, an action which went against Mosaic law. Things went from bad to worse when Caligula became emperor in 39 AD, declared himself a god, and ordered that his statue be erected in every temple in Rome, including of course, the Jewish temple. The Jews, unwilling to defile God’s holy temple with a statue of Caligula, refused. Caligula was enraged and ordered the destruction of the temple, and the massacre of the Jews. Fortunately for the Jews, he was assassinated by one of his centurions before the edict could be carried out.

Nevertheless, the die had been cast. Anti-Roman sentiment had already taken root among the Jews who feared that another ruler could come at anytime and be even worse than Caligula. A group of radicals, known as the Zealots, fanned the flames of hatred against Rome. The fact that Caligula was assassinated before he was able to commit genocide emboldened the Jews, confirming their own beliefs that God was on their side. Between Caligula’s death in 41 AD, and the revolt in 66 AD, Roman soldiers continued their indignities, including burning a Torah scroll. The tipping point came in 66 AD when Roman Procurator Florus sent troops to steal the temple silver. This led to mass riots and the Jews wiped out an entire Roman garrison. Roman rulers in nearby Syria sent in more soldiers, whom the insurgents easily eradicated. Their victory was short-lived however, as Rome, under General Titus, sent in 60,000 soldiers and attacked Galilee, destroying the city and either killing or enslaving 100,000 Jews.

The Galilean genocide prompted the Zealots to turn against the more moderate Jews, and a civil war ensued. This, of course, greatly increased the number of Jewish casualties and hastened Roman victory. In the summer of 70 AD, Roman soldiers increased their violence against the city of Jerusalem, bringing death, destruction, and mayhem to the beleaguered city. In a final blow against their subdued foes, they destroyed the second temple. True to the words of Jesus, pronounced nearly four decades earlier, not a single stone remained. General Titus’ army had razed them all. In 132 AD, Simon bar Kokhba led another revolt against Rome. This too was a massive failure, and cost the Jews their homeland, which wouldn’t be restored to them until 1948, nearly 2,000 years later.

The Third Temple: Jesus Christ

Jesus came to this earth to save mankind from their sins, and teach them the proper way to live; in peace and harmony with one another. Without love, it is impossible to please God. In Matthew 5, Jesus compares hatred to murder, preaching, “Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement. Again, anyone who says to his brother ‘Raca’ (An Aramaic term of contempt) is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fires of hell.” (Matthew 5:22) Just 22 verses later He instructs us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44) Surely, if the Zealots had prayed for the Romans and had blessed them, the lives of over a million Jews would have been spared. And if the Zealots didn’t turn against their own people the temple could have been saved.

Contrition raised the second temple and violence razed it. When the Jews repented of their sins they were freed from exile, allowed to rebuild the temple, and worship as they pleased. Groundless hatred, according to the Babylonian Talmud, had destroyed the second temple, to this day, it remains in ruins. Why? The sin of hatred still remains. Not only amongst the Jews, but amongst us all. It’s easy to obey commands that focus on ritual, it’s a much more difficult task to abandon the sins that infect our hearts. We’ve all been angry at another person, we’ve all disliked our neighbor, some have even gone so far as to hate their brother or sister in Christ. It is human nature to feel that way, but we needn’t despair. It is within God’s power to help us overcome such sins. Through God we can find peace and love for all creation. As Christians, we believe that Jesus Himself is the new temple, restored to all mankind. Through the sacrificial love of Christ, the temple had been reestablished. We should heed the lesson that our Jewish brothers learned so painfully: hatred is the destroyer of all that is holy, love is what restores it.

© 2017 Anna Watson


Bidinlin Philip on May 29, 2019:

Thanks for the nice information

Tamarajo on January 10, 2018:

Fascinating historical background information and application.

Anna Watson (author) from Atlanta, GA on December 12, 2017:

Thank you,

To be honest, I can understand the confusion. For people looking for signs of the end of the age, it can fit a description that they're looking for. And what He said is broad enough that many of those events have happened multiple times the world over. But He does say specifically that "this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." Sure enough, less than forty years later there's a rebellion that brought about famine, persecution, and the temple destruction just as He said.

Tony Muse from Texas, USA on December 11, 2017:

Well-written. Many Christians today deny that Jesus was speaking of Herod's temple when he said those words just prior to the Olivet Discourse in Matt. 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. It is my belief that much of what Jesus spoke of in in the Olivet Discourse was concerning the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, but this has been met by much opposition by those who hold to Dispensational beliefs.

God bless!