Each year, we at the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews take prayers from our supporters to the Western Wall in Jerusalem – the only part of the Second Jewish Temple that survived destruction when Roman conquerors invaded in 70 CE. It is also the site closest to the Temple Mount, where both the First and Second Temples were located.
Pilgrims come from around the world to the Western Wall to insert written prayers in the cracks between its ancient stones. Bringing our supporters’ prayers to the Wall is one of the most meaningful ways that we say “thank you” to our faithful friends for their steadfast support for Israel and the Jewish people.
Anyone who has had the privilege of visiting the Wall has likely wondered what life was like in Temple times. By looking at history, Jewish tradition, and the Bible, we can paint a portrait of this amazing era.
Imagine that you are alive during the First Temple era, around 700 BCE. You have come to Jerusalem for Passover. As far as your eyes can see, throngs of people are walking along the hills surrounding Jerusalem with their sheep in tow for the Passover offering. As you near the Temple Mount you catch a glimpse of the most beautiful, towering structure that you have ever seen, glowing and taking on a golden hue in the sun.
Even though it is a windy day, an unmoving pillar of smoke rises straight toward heaven from the place of the altar. You have heard that this is one of the ten daily miracles that occur in the Temple. You also marvel at another: despite Jerusalem’s small size and the number of pilgrims present, all the people converging on Jerusalem have a comfortable place to stay at night.
As you enter the Temple you hear the most exquisite music coming from the Levites, the priests. You tremble knowing that you are stepping into the holiest place on earth, not far from the Holy Ark with the cherubs on top, between which God communicates with His people and sends His blessings.
The people coming out of the Temple have had a profound encounter with their Creator in this holy place. The words of the Psalms echo in your mind, reminding you that the city of Jerusalem where the Temple stands is the “joy of the whole earth” (Psalm 48:2).
In order to understand the holiness of Jerusalem, we must understand the holiness of the Temple. What was its purpose? Why was it constructed? As King Solomon, builder of the First Temple, asked at its dedication: “But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (2 Chronicles 6:18).
It’s true that God does not need a Temple. However, God chose to give the Temple as a gift so that we might have a way to become closer to Him. As mentioned in the verses above, and particularly in Solomon’s prayer, the Temple would serve a host of purposes as the gateway between heaven and earth.
First and foremost, the Temple would serve as a conduit, making it possible for God to dwell among us; His presence would be more readily and intensely experienced there than in any other place. The Temple was where a person could offer sacrifices. Though we might have difficulty understanding it today, the sacrifices offered in Temple times brought a person closer to God. They enabled a direct interaction with God, brought atonement for wrongdoings, and helped worshipers express their love, gratitude, and devotion through giving God the best of what they had.
The holiness of the Temple was closely tied to the holiness of Jerusalem. During Temple times, Jerusalem was not just the city of God’s Holy Temple, but also housed the palace of the king and the Sanhedrin, the main court of law which was composed of 70 of Israel’s most learned men. This is the meaning of the verse from Psalm 122: “There stand the thrones for judgment, the thrones of the house of David” (v. 5). The “thrones for judgment” refer to the court of the Sanhedrin, and the “throne of the house of David” refers to the royal palace. Both stood in Jerusalem.
The Jewish sages teach that most prophets lived in Jerusalem and spoke their prophecies from there. Jerusalem was also a commercial center that flourished from the amount of people that streamed in and out of the city. Therefore, in Temple times, Jerusalem was the hub of royalty, of government, of justice, of knowledge, of culture, of commerce, of spirituality, and above all, of holiness.
For Christians, Jerusalem holds great spiritual significance as well. Jesus spent time there, teaching and worshiping at the Temple. When he was a baby, Mary and Joseph presented him to the Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem. When he was 12 and went missing, Mary and Joseph eventually found him at the Temple in deep discussion with the rabbis.
Jerusalem is where Jesus made his triumphal entry, where he was crucified, where Christian pilgrims follow in Jesus’ footsteps. At Pentecost, the Christian Bible in Acts 2:5 says, “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.” It was during this gathering that God’s spirit descended on Jesus’ followers and the Christian church was born.
Judaism teaches that the Messiah will come and build a Third Temple in Jerusalem, where he will once again dwell among his people. This is foretold in prophecy from the Book of Ezekiel: “He said: ‘Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place for the soles of my feet. This is where I will live among the Israelites forever’” (Ezekiel 43:7). Jews have been waiting since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE for the Messiah to come and restore his presence to them in the Third Temple.
Until this happens, all of us – Jews and Christians alike – can still visit the Western Wall to experience God’s glory, and to offer our heartfelt prayers to Him, secure in the knowledge that we are indeed standing in a holy place.