Temple: The House of God

What is the difference between a house and a home?

On December 26, 2003, I discovered the difference. I had been woken that morning to the sound of cell phones ringing.  I was at my sister’s house for Christmas. We had celebrated the night before with all my sisters, brothers-in-laws, and nieces and nephews. My parents were absent as they were taking another missionary term in the Amazon of Brazil, where they had served for decades.

I heard my phone ring first, but I had ignored it. Then, my sister’s house phone rang, then her cell phone. No one answered. Then I heard a cell phone ring again, and a few minutes later my sister knocked on our door.

My oldest sister had been trying to get ahold of us with terrible news. My dad had passed away in Brazil. He had gone out for a morning jungle run, but he had returned early, suffering from what my mom suspects was a stroke. He collapsed. Within the hour, he was gone.

As the family rallied around various responsibilities that morning, I was tasked with going to my parent’s home to collect dad’s rolodex so we could start informing people. As I walked in the door of my childhood home, I had never felt a place so empty. Without the expectation of seeing my father sitting in his spot on the couch, or at his desk in the study, it no longer felt like home. It was just a house I had lived in once.

What is the difference between a house and a home?

To me, a house is a building. A home is a relationship. A house is an impersonal structure, but a home is deeply personal. I have lived in many different houses, but my home is where my people are, regardless of the structure we live in. That morning, I mourned the loss not only of my father, but of a home. I would never be in dad’s presence on this earth. He no longer lived in a place I could visit with him.  He would never again invite me home.

God understands that we make our home with those we love. He talks about making his home where his people are. He wants his people to feel at home with him.

In the last lesson, we explored the Tabernacle. God dwelled in his sacred tent in the middle of the Israelites in the wilderness. Once they entered the land he had promised to them, the people continued to use the Tabernacle as the place where they could witness the presence of God and worship and connect with him. The Tabernacle was moved around a few times in that two-hundred-year period, but when King David united all the tribes of Israel into the nation, he decided it was time for God to have his own house. But, would that house become God’s home?

Let’s delve a little into the history of the idea of a house built for God.

The House of God

First, we will begin at the beginning of Israel, with Jacob.

In Genesis 28, Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, was running away from his brother Esau because he had swindled away Esau’s inheritance. That night, at a certain place where he stopped to sleep, he dreamed of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. Angels were going up and down, and at the top was God himself. From heaven, God confirmed his promise to Jacob.

When Jacob awoke, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” He set the stone he slept on upright to mark the place where God dwelled. He called it Beit El, Bethel, which means the house of God.

To our modern ears, we hear the words gateway or stairway or ladder, and we have a certain image in our minds. Most likely, you are imagining a tall, skinny, multi-runged ladder, like something you’d use to paint your house. But to the ancient reader, they had one specific image in mind when they heard Jacob’s story of something connecting heaven and earth: the ziggurat.

Ancient ziggurat at Ali Air Base Iraq, 20 September 2005.
Hardnfast, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The ziggurat was a stepped, pyramid-shaped building that indicated a place where the gods traveled between realms. In ancient Mesopotamia, these staircases from heaven were built alongside a temple and garden to indicate a sacred place where the god came down from heaven to dwell. Its sole purpose was to act as a ladder for the gods to descend from heaven. At the base of this stairway pyramid, a temple was built to house the idol representing the god.

Jacob dreamed of an ancient ziggurat and he connected this stairway with the idea of the house of God, the place where God lived. But, unlike pagan temples and stairways to heaven, God does not descend to the sacred space built for his use. Instead, God speaks from heaven.

Heaven is the dwelling place of God. The earth is his footstool. This is how the Israelites came to understand their temple. It was the place that God connected his home in heaven with his people on earth.  

Israel’s temple did not have a ziggurat built behind it as a stairway for the god to descend. Instead, the temple was a place where the people’s prayer could ascend to God. As a house of God and a house of prayer, the temple became the focus for worship, the physical location that represented a way to connect with God.

Solomon’s Temple

The first temple of Israel is called Solomon’s Temple, because he was the king who built it. It was built on the top of Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. Its layout was the same as the Tabernacle with various sacred spaces, from the outer courtyard where sacrifices were presented on the altar, to the inner chamber where only priests were allowed, to the Holiest of Holies, where the ark of the covenant housed the covenant of God. Solomon’s temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world. People traveled from all over the world to see it and to learn about the God of Israel.

The temple was built for meaningful relationship – a home.

At the dedication of the temple, Solomon made it clear that this place did not house God. God fills both heaven and earth and still God cannot be contained. Solomon understood the temple to be a house of prayer.

In 1 Kings 8:29, Solomon asks God, “May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there.'” He goes on in verse 41 to welcome the prayers of all people.

“As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name- then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”

God wanted his Name placed on the temple to distinguish the temple’s purpose. The temple was not where God lived, but it was a place where you could call on his Name. It was the location where all people could focus their prayers and find a connection to God. After thousands of sacrifices to confirm the dedication of the temple, the cloud of the Lord that traveled with the Tabernacle in the desert hundreds of years earlier, came down once more and filled the temple. God who dwelled in heaven, connected to his people on earth at the house where he put his Name. God made his home at the temple.

The temple becomes a place of meaningless ritual – a house.

Yet, over time, the temple became a place a meaningless ritual. The Israelites worshiped other gods besides God on the side. They ignored God’s laws about being just and kind, while they continued to follow the ritual, sacrificial laws.

God sent prophets to warn the people that they had forgotten what the temple was for. The prophet Jeremiah stood at the gate of the temple and pronounced that using the temple like an incantation did not work with God. Simply saying “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” without living lives that reflected God was not only useless, but it was also dangerous. God had put his Name on the temple, and he would not let it be a sham.

It was not sacrificing that God cared about, but that the people reflected their love for him in how they treated others. Israel took advantage of the weak, then brought sacrifices. The priests extorted the poor and then brought sacrifices. The people lied, cheated each other, poured out their hearts to other gods, then brought sacrifices. The temple was a mockery of God’s Name, and God told them he would destroy it for their own good.

In Ezekiel 10, the prophet Ezekiel sees a vision of God’s presence leaving the temple. Then, in 586 BC, Solomon’s temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Everyone, except the poorest of the poor, was taken to Babylon as captive.

God is our home. His house is just a prop.

Even though God allowed his temple to be destroyed, he assured his people that the temple would again be rebuilt in 70 years. During the years of captivity, the people began to worship God in synagogues, buildings dedicated to the study of God’s Word and telling others about Israel’s God. God had not abandoned his people. He was still present with them in captivity.

God says in Ezekiel 11:16, “Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a home for them in the countries where they have gone.’”

God always makes his home among his people. God’s dwelling place is not a sacred house. It is not in Jerusalem. It is not on top of a golden box. Those who love the Lord God know that he makes his home with us.

Psalm 90:1 says, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.”

Seventy years later, Cyrus of Persia decreed that the Jews could rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. He set up Zerubbabel as under-king in Israel, and he oversaw the rebuilding of the temple. This was the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Esther.

Zerubbabel’s Temple

The second temple, sometimes called Zerubbabel’s Temple, was only a shadow of the grandeur of Solomon’s. When the priests saw the foundations of the new temple, they wept, remembering the size and splendor of the temple they had lost. Zerubbabel’s temple did not have the ark of the covenant, and the cloud of the Lord is never recorded as entering this new building. Later, when the Greeks conquered Israel, this temple was damaged.

Herod’s Temple

A model of Herod’s Temple adjacent to the Shrine of the Book exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
9 November 2008
Berthold Werner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Rome rose to power in Israel, the appointed king Herod began to rebuild and expand the second temple to curry favor with the Jews. Herod, a great builder, designed a gigantic temple complex that was covered in gold. Catching the middle eastern sun, it could be seen glimmering for miles. The Western Wailing Wall in Jerusalem today is one of the foundation walls from this temple. This temple is also called one of the wonders of the ancient world. The layout of the main structure of the temple mimicked past temples. It had the holy place elaborately decorated, with a thick curtain embroidered with constellations and heavenly beings. Only, the last room of this temple, the most holy place, was empty.

Like the empty house I walked into the day my father died, God’s presence was absent from that house. God did not dwell in Herold’s temple …  until he visited it as an eight-day-old baby boy and received the name, Jesus.

Through Jesus, God announces what had been true all along. He has made a home with his people. He is right here living in the middle of us! He wants to connect and share life with people. God does not need a house of his own, he is standing at the door to your heart asking to join yours. No matter where you live, God wants to build a home with you.

When King David united all the tribes of Israel into the nation, he decided it was time for God to have his own house. But, would that house become God’s home?

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