The building of the Temple by King Solomon is the centerpiece of 2 Chronicles. We covered some of this material in our guide to 1 Chronicles, but for your reading pleasure, here it is again with a few additions—after all, the Temple is now actually up and running. In 1 Chronicles, it was just King David's dream.
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 of the Ten Commandments. 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 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 in every conflict. It was the dwelling place of God, a space where he could live amid 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 on the Philistine camp and they sent it back after about 7 months. Seriously, guys, you do not mess with Yahweh.
Once the people were all settled and secure in the Promised Land it was time to get to work building a permanent home for the Ark of the Covenant. In 1 Chronicles, King David finds the exact place—the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite—and gets the blueprints all together. It's up to his son, Solomon, to finish the job. And he does it right.
He overlaid it on the inside with pure gold. The nave he lined with cypress, covered it with fine gold, and made palms and chains on it. He adorned the house with settings of precious stones. The gold was gold from Parvaim. So he lined the house with gold—its beams, its thresholds, its walls, and its doors; and he carved cherubim on the walls. (3:4-7)
These descriptions are very detailed because the place is so ornately designed. The quality and size of the building obviously reflect the people's feelings about their God. The "house [is] great, for our God is greater than other gods" (2:5). Yahweh is not only the Creator of Heaven and Earth, but he's the reason behind every blessing the people of Israel experience in their daily lives. You don't cut corners in building his house.
If You Build It, He Will Come
The Temple turns out to be first-class, but will God take up residence there? Even Solomon is a little concerned. He says, "Will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!" (6:18).
No worries. God totally approves of the new construction:
I have heard your prayer, and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house so that my name may be there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time. (7:12-16)
This is a really powerful statement. God has thrown his lot in with these people. The Temple will be a place of repentance and forgiveness, and God promises to live there for eternity.
Sacred Place, Sacred Symbol
Throughout 2 Chronicles, the Temple's the symbol of God's relationship with the people. It's where sacrifices are offered—sacrifices of thanksgiving, atonement, and petition. Jewish worship at that time was primarily done through these sacrifices by the priests. So when the Temple is well-maintained and properly cared for, things go well in Judah. But when it falls into disrepair or idols start appearing inside it, then trouble's on the horizon.
- The children of Athaliah, that wicked woman, had broken into the house of God, and had even used all the dedicated things of the house of the Lord for the Baals. (24:7)
- They abandoned the house of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and served the sacred poles and the idols. And wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this guilt of theirs. (24:18)
- Every work that he undertook in the service of the house of God, and in accordance with the law and the commandments, to seek his God, he did with all his heart; and he prospered. (31:21)
- He took away the foreign gods and the idol from the house of the Lord, and all the altars that he had built on the mountain of the house of the Lord and in Jerusalem, and he threw them out of the city. (33:15)
- All the leading priests and the people also were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations; and they polluted the house of the Lord that he had consecrated in Jerusalem. (36:14)
In fact, the disobedient and unfaithful behavior of the people is what leads to the Temple finally being destroyed after standing for about 400 years. God's so filled with wrath about the people's disobedience that he lets the Babylonian Empire destroy Jerusalem and the Temple:
They burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels. (36:19)
God's obviously not attached to material things.
Extreme Makeover, Judean Edition
So the Temple's been destroyed and the Ark of the Covenant has been lost forever. This is a devastating event for the nation. God's house—the place where he promised to live forever among his people—is nothing more than a pile of rubble in the middle of Jerusalem. The symbol of Judah's eternal relationship with God is in ruins. Much of the population has been hauled off to Babylon and is mourning for Jerusalem.
But God hasn't abandoned his people; he pulled back for about 70 years but kept his eye on them. Thanks to King Cyrus being moved by the spirit of God, the exiles in Babylon are eventually allowed to come back home and start building a new Temple:
Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up. (36:23)
That new building went up around 522 BCE and was standing during the time of Jesus (source). Remember when he threw those moneylenders out of the Temple? Yeah, it was that Temple. No one wonder the powers-that-be in Jerusalem started to take notice of him.
About 40 years after Jesus died, 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 9th 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 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." (That would be a radical understatement. See our "Current Hot-Button Issues and Cultural Debates" section for more.)
If anything, the symbolic value of the Temple to Jews only increased since its destruction. Many synagogues incorporate elements of the Temple's design into theirs, with arks containing the scrolls of the Torah and religious objects like candlestands. Jewish congregations face east when they pray—toward Jerusalem and the Temple. The liturgy contains many references to rebuilding the Temple, although only a tiny minority of Jews think that would be a realistic or good idea.
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. That's what we heard in this one movie at least.
- During an episode of Mythbusters, Adam Savage touched a model of the Ark of the Covenant and got shocked (to be fair, it was hooked up to a 10,000-volt cattle prod).
- Isaac Newton devoted a whole chapter to the Temple 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.