In case you didn't notice, David's plan to build a temple in Jerusalem was kind of a big deal. You might think this is just another house of worship, but to the people of ancient Israel, this place was way, way more.
To properly explain the role of the Temple in Jewish life, we've got to back up a bit. Way back in Exodus, God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Since they were going to be wandering in the desert for a while, God told them to build a portable "house" for him. This was the Ark of the Covenant:
They shall make an ark of acacia wood[…] You shall overlay it with pure gold[…] You shall cast four rings of gold for it[…] You shall make poles of acacia wood[…] Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold[…] You shall make two cherubim of gold[…] There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites. (Exodus 25:10-13, 17-18, 22)
Inside this Ark were the stone tablets that had the Ten Commandments written on them (don't want to lose those babies). While the Israelites were in the desert, they built a tent with a courtyard (called the tabernacle) to house the Ark. Moses put Levi's tribe in charge of the care and feeding of the Ark and all was well.
The presence of the Ark was a stand-in for the presence of God. As long as the Ark was with the people, God was with Israel and on their side in every conflict. It was the dwelling place of God. A space he could live amidst the people, surrounded by smoke and clouds that let everyone know when he was in residence.
When the Israelites conquered the Promised Land, they took the Ark with them and, natch, victory was theirs. But years later, the Ark was kidnapped by the Philistines during battle. God sent a whole bunch of curses to the Philistine camp and they sent it back after about seven months. Seriously, guys, you do not mess with Yahweh.
The Prodigal Ark Returns
Once David becomes king, he gets the idea to bring the Ark into Jerusalem where he'll build a more permanent home for it:
Now when David settled in his house, David said to the prophet Nathan, "I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of the covenant of the Lord is under a tent." (17:1)
Even though David is God's chosen ruler and pretty much the greatest king in the history of the world, he's just not holy enough to handle God's house:
I had planned to build a house to the name of the Lord my God. But the word of the Lord came to me, saying, "You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth." (22:7-8)
David's a warrior; the Temple will be a place of peace. It will be up to Solomon to build this Temple.
Even though the Temple isn't built in 1 Chronicles (you'll finally get a look at it in the second half of Chronicles), David designs it:
David gave his son Solomon the plan of the vestibule of the temple, and of its houses, its treasuries, its upper rooms, and its inner chambers, and of the room for the mercy seat; and the plan of all that he had in mind: for the courts of the house of the Lord, all the surrounding chambers, the treasuries of the house of God, and the treasuries for dedicated gifts; for the divisions of the priests and of the Levites, and all the work of the service in the house of the Lord; for all the vessels for the service in the house of the Lord, the weight of gold for all golden vessels for each service, the weight of silver vessels for each service, the weight of the golden lampstands and their lamps, the weight of gold for each lampstand and its lamps, the weight of silver for a lampstand and its lamps, according to the use of each in the service, the weight of gold for each table for the rows of bread, the silver for the silver tables and pure gold for the forks, the basins, and the cups; for the golden bowls and the weight of each; for the silver bowls and the weight of each; for the altar of incense made of refined gold, and its weight; also his plan for the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord. "All this, in writing at the Lord's direction, he made clear to me—the plan of all the works." (28:11-19)
David also drew up job assignments for the future Temple. High priests. Musicians. Gatekeepers. Treasurers. If there was a bathroom in the Temple, you know someone would be assigned to clean it. This place has to run like clockwork.
Once the Temple's actually built around 957 BCE, it becomes the center of life in the Kingdom of Judah. Priests make sacrifices for the people. During the four pilgrimage festivals, people from everywhere in the region flock to Jerusalem to give their sacrificial animals to the priests. But when the Babylonians invade the city in 587 BCE, they burned the Temple to the ground. The Ark of the Covenant was lost and other precious Temple items were carried off.
This is around the time Chronicles is written. Just imagine how devastating it must have been to see God's house reduced to rubble. Had Yahweh been defeated? Had he turned his back on Israel? There had to be some explanation.
Thanks to the Persian King Cyrus, the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem to pick up the pieces and rebuild the Temple around 522 BCE. This Second Temple stood until the lifetime of Jesus. Remember when he threw those moneylenders out of the Temple? Yeah, it was that Temple. No wonder the powers-that-be in Jerusalem started to take notice of him.
About forty years after Jesus' died, in 70 CE, the Roman Empire marched into Jerusalem and leveled the Temple again. Jews still mourn the destruction of the Temples; observant Jews have a day of fasting and prayer on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av to commemorate the destruction.
While ruins of the walls of the Second Temple still stand in Jerusalem, archeologists have never been able to find evidence that the First Temple was ever there. One wall of the Second Temple (the Western or Wailing Wall) is a very holy place for Jews to gather and pray. Two major Muslim holy sites, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, stand there today on what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary. These structures were built after the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the early 7th century CE. Because this site is so powerfully important to both Jews and Muslims, the situation in this spot could be described as "tense." But that would be a pretty radical understatement. See our "Hot-Button Issues" section for more on that.
In Pop Culture
Even though the Ark and the Temple are gone for good, they still manage to capture our imaginations:
- Rumor has it that the Ark of the Covenant was recovered by one Dr. Henry Jones.
- During an episode of "Mythbusters," Adam gets zapped by a replica of the angels on the Ark.
- Isaac Newton was really into Solomon's Temple. He devoted a whole chapter to it in his book The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms.
- One legend says that the Ark of the Covenant was secretly moved to Ethiopia in the 10th Century BCE and is still there to this day.