The Fall of the Second Temple


So what about the animal sacrifices today?  There are some Jews who wish to rebuild the Temple and bring in the animal sacrifices again.  The Temple Mount Faithful are recreating the items used in the Temple and petitioning the Vatican to return the golden menorah taken by the Romans in 70 CE to Rome and which is believed to be stored in the Vatican vaults.

This is very much a minority concern however, encouraged to a certain extent by some Christians who for prophetic reasons want to see a rebuilt Temple.  One small problem is that the Temple area is under Islamic control at present and any attempt to rebuild the Temple where the Dome of the Rock mosque now stands would cause an uproar in the Islamic world.   Apart from this there are massive problems about any reconstituting of the sacrificial system, which would also involve setting up the Priesthood and the Sanhedrin again.  As a Jewish friend once said to me, ‘We’ve got enough problems agreeing on a Chief Rabbi.  You want us to agree on who should be High Priest!’  

The destruction of the Second Temple was an event of enormous significance for the Jewish people:  Rabbi Ken Spiro writes:  ‘The destruction of the Second Temple is one of the most important events in the history of the Jewish people, and certainly one of the most depressing.  It is a sign that God has withdrawn from (though certainly not abandoned) the Jews. Although the Jews will survive in accordance with the promise that they will be an ‘eternal nation’, the special relationship with God they enjoyed while the Temple stood is gone … Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam, causeless hatred of one Jew for another (Talmud – Yomah).” (1)

There has to be a reason why God permitted this calamity to happen to Israel.  Rabbi Spiro is right that the destruction of the Temple is one of the most important events in the history of the Jewish people.  But the answer given in the Talmud is not satisfactory. As the Rabbi says, the Jewish people today are not in the relationship with God which they enjoyed in earlier days when they experienced the kind of divine protection and victory over their enemies under such leaders as Moses, Joshua, Gideon and David. Rather they have experienced the fulfilment of Deuteronomy 28.64-66:

‘And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other… And among these nations you will find no ease, and there shall be no rest for the sole of your foot; but the Lord will give you a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul; your life will hang in doubt before you; night and day you shall be in dread, and have no assurance of your life.’

Why is this?  A reading of the whole of Deuteronomy 28 gives a very clear answer. Verses 1-14 record all the blessings of God’s peace, prosperity and protection given to Israel on one simple condition: ‘if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments.’  The remainder of the chapter (verses 15-68) records God’s judgements on Israel if they disobey.  The whole history of Israel recorded in the Bible can be seen as the outworking of this chapter in the direct experience of the people of Israel.  When the people turned away from God they experienced his judgments in terms of foreign invasion, drought, social disintegration and confusion. At these times God raised up prophets and leaders who spoke his message and showed the people the way back to God’s blessing as he led them to victory over foreign invaders and back to peace.  But when they refused to listen he allowed the Gentile nations to punish them.  

As Rabbi Spiro says by far the greatest suffering in Israel’s history began with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans and the beginning of the dispersion.  Could it be coincidence that this happened just one generation after God spoke through Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth, not only through his words, but also through his death and resurrection? God spoke to Moses and said:

‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth and he shall speak to them all that I command him.  And whoever will not give heed to my words which he shall speak in my name I myself will require it of him.’  Deuteronomy 18.18-19

If Jesus was that Prophet whom Moses was pointing to we have an explanation for the fall of the Temple in 70 CE which makes much more sense than the reason given in the Talmud.  The people, especially the religious leadership, did not give heed to Jesus’ words and so God required this of them.  This is a much more plausible reason than the ‘causeless hatred’ theory.  If ‘causeless hatred’ was so serious that it was going to lead to the destruction of the Temple and the scattering of the Jewish people into the nations and the subsequent holocaust, surely God would have sent a prophet beforehand to tell people to love each other.  In fact he did.  Jesus said, ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.’  John 13.34.

If we look at the fall of the first Temple at the hands of the Babylonians we find that God sent prophet after prophet to warn of the coming event.  Jeremiah was the main prophet who God raised up to speak to the generation before the fall of the Temple and the deportation of the Jewish people to Babylon.  As a prophet he did three main things:

  1. He told them what was going to happen.
  2. He gave a reason for it.
  3. He gave a promise of restoration.

For forty years Jeremiah warned his generation that the Babylonians were going to invade and destroy Jerusalem and the Temple and take them into captivity unless they repented of their sins.  The reason why it was going to happen was the worship of idols and the breaking of God’s commandments:

‘Behold you trust in lying words that cannot profit.  Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before me in this house which is called by my name and say “We are delivered to do all these abominations”?  Jeremiah 7.8-10.

Far from repenting, Jeremiah was mocked and rejected as the people preferred false prophets who said they were going to have peace and safety.  But Jeremiah was not just a prophet of doom.  He also promised a return from Babylon:

‘For thus says the Lord:  After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform my good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place.  For I know the thoughts that I have towards you says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope’ Jeremiah 29.10-11.

This promise was fulfilled when the Persians overthrew the Babylonian Empire and the Persian Emperor Cyrus issued a decree that the Jewish people should return to the Promised Land and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1.1-4).  In this way the covenant was being fulfilled as the descendants of Abraham returned to the land God promised to Abraham.

Jeremiah also looked beyond the return of the Jewish people to a time when God would make a new covenant with the house of Israel.  The terms of this covenant would be different from the covenant God made with Israel when he brought them out of Egypt:

‘This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts: and I will be their God and they shall be my people.  No more shall every man teach his neighbour and every man his brother saying ‘Know the Lord’ for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest of them says the Lord.  For I will forgive their iniquity and their sin I will remember no more’ Jeremiah 31.33-34.

The new covenant points to the Messiah who was to come to deal with the problem of the sin nature, which causes us all to break God’s commandments.  When Jesus came in fulfilment of Isaiah 53 (and many other prophecies) he brought in the new covenant, through dying as a sacrifice for the sins of the world at the time of the Passover. At the time that the Jewish people were offering the Passover lambs to remember the blood of the lamb, which protected them from the Angel of Death (see Exodus 12), Jesus was put to death by crucifixion in fulfilment of Psalm 22, Daniel 9.26 and Zechariah 12.10.  He was the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’  (John 1.29).  As we have seen in the previous chapter he saves all those who come under the protection of his blood from eternal death.

Did the coming of the new covenant mean that God was finished with the Jewish people and that the covenant made with Abraham no longer applied?  Much of the church actually teaches this in so called ‘replacement theology’ which means that the promises to Israel are now given to the church.  But it is significant that after God gave his promise of the new covenant he said that as long as the sun, the moon and the stars exist, so long will Israel be a nation before the Lord (Jeremiah 31.35-36).

If we look carefully at Jesus’ words we discover that in relation to Israel, Jesus too functioned in the same prophetic way that Jeremiah did.

  1. He warned of the coming catastrophe.
  2. He gave a reason for it.
  3. He gave a promise of restoration.

As Jesus was riding into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week which would lead up to his crucifixion and resurrection he stopped half way down the mount of Olives and wept over the city.  He said:

‘If you had known even you especially in this your day the things that make for your peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.  For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and level you and your children within you to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation’  Luke 19.41-44.

Jesus prophesied the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.  He told those who believed in him to flee from the city when they saw the armies gathering, because this was going to lead to a time of terrible slaughter and destruction.  He also knew that the motivation of the Jewish revolt would be a false Messianic hope in a coming deliverer from the Romans as happened in the second Jewish revolt (132-5), whose leader, Bar Cochba, was proclaimed the Messiah by Rabbi Akiba:

‘For there will be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people.  And they shall fall by the edge of the sword and be led away captive into all nations.  And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled’ Luke 21.20-24.

In these verses Jesus warned of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and the dispersion of the Jewish people into the lands of the Gentiles.  He also gave a reason for it: ‘Because you did not know the time of your visitation’.  In other words the dispersion happened because Jesus was not recognised as the Messiah.  In this sense there is a certain truth in the ‘causeless hatred’ theory of Judaism, but not as it is understood today.  The question has to be asked, ‘Who is the object of the causeless hatred’? Today the Jewish answer to this is that ‘causeless hatred’ meant the hostility of different Jewish factions defending Jerusalem, which allowed the Romans to break through and take the city.  But Jesus spoke about his coming rejection and crucifixion and used exactly this phrase to describe the opposition to himself:  

‘He who hates me hates my Father also.  If I had not done among them the works which no one else did they would have no sin; but now they have hated both me and my Father. But this happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’  John 15.23-5, quoting Psalm 69.4.

It is fascinating to note that there is a warning of coming destruction of the Temple in the Talmud.  Although this is generally the last place one would look to in order to find some indication that Jesus is the Messiah, there is a passage which implies that something happened 40 years before the destruction of the Temple which pointed to its coming destruction and even to the fact that it had become spiritually desolate 40 years before it became physically desolate.  It was 40 years before its destruction that Jesus gave his prophecy of its coming destruction and gave himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world so doing away with the need for the animal sacrifices.

At the time of the Second Temple the practice on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was to take two goats and sacrifice them to the Lord according to Leviticus 16.  The first goat was ‘for the Lord’ and the second goat was ‘l’azazel’ for the scapegoat. The High Priest would choose the goats by lots and it was considered a good omen if he brought out the goat ‘for the Lord’ with his right hand and a bad omen if he brought it out with his left hand.  The first goat was sacrificed in the Holy of Holies, and the second goat was sent out into the wilderness, after having the sins of the people placed upon it in accordance with Leviticus 16.21.  A scarlet sash was tied around the neck of the scapegoat and it was then taken to a precipice in the wilderness about 12 miles from Jerusalem.  In his book ‘The Fall Feasts of Israel’ Mitch Glaser describes what happened next:

‘When the goat finally arrived at the precipice, the attending priest removed the red sash from its head and divided it, returning half to the animal’s horns and tying the other half to a protrusion on the cliff.  He then pushed the animal backwards over the cliff to its death.

‘In connection with this ceremony an interesting tradition arose, which is mentioned in the Mishna.  A portion of the crimson sash was attached to the door of the Temple before the goat was sent into the wilderness.  The sash would turn from red to white as the goat met its end signalling to the people that God had accepted their sacrifice and their sins were forgiven.  This was based on the verse in Isaiah where the prophet declared: ‘Come now, and let us reason together says the Lord, though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool’  (Isaiah 1.18).  The Mishna tells us that forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the sash stopped turning white. That of course was approximately the year that Christ died.’  (2)

In fact there are four signs recorded in the Talmud (Yoma 39a, b) of events which happened during this 40 year period before the destruction of the Temple:

  1. The lot for the Lord’s goat did not come up in the right hand of the high priest.
  2. The scarlet cord tied to the door of the Temple on the Day of Atonement stopped turning white after the scapegoat had been cast over the precipice.  
  3. The westernmost light on the Temple candelabra would not burn.  It is believed that this light was used to light the other lights of the candelabra.  
  4. The Temple doors would open by themselves.  The rabbis saw this as an ominous fulfilment of Zechariah 11.1, ‘Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that fire may devour thy cedars.’ The opening of the doors to let in the consuming fire foretold the destruction of the Temple itself by fire.  (3)

The fact that two of these signs relate to the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement and that all of them took place over the 40 year period before the destruction of the Second Temple cannot be a coincidence.  It points to the real reason why God permitted its destruction which was to do with the rejection of the Messiah by the Sanhedrin and the continuation of the animal sacrifices after the one final and perfect sacrifice for sin had been offered.  Once Jesus had offered himself as a sacrifice for sin and atonement, God never again accepted the animal sacrifices offered on Yom Kippur.  This explains why during the 40 years before the destruction of the Temple the sash never turned white and the goat for the Lord was always taken with the left hand (statistically this is virtually impossible).

Apart from this passage in the Talmud there is one major prophecy in the Tenach which shows that the Messiah will come before the destruction of the second Temple and points to the reason for its desolation.  In Daniel 9 we have an encounter Daniel had with the angel Gabriel after he had prayed for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem after the 70 years of desolation prophesied by Jeremiah had been fulfilled. He is given the famous 70 weeks of years prophecy which speaks of the rebuilding of Jerusalem ‘in troublesome times’ and then has this extraordinary verse:

‘After the sixty two weeks Messiah shall be cut off but not for himself; and the people of the prince to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.  And the end shall be with a flood and till the end of the war desolations are determined.’  Daniel 9.26.  

A young man called Rachmiel Frydland was studying at a Yeshiva in pre war Warsaw and some Christians showed him this verse.  He asked the Rabbis at the Yeshiva to whom the verse referred and could not find a satisfactory answer.  He found a commentary of Rashi who said that the one referred to here is King Agrippa who died just before the destruction of the Second Temple.  He concluded that if the best the rabbis can do is say that this verse is fulfilled by an obscure Gentile king, they must have got it wrong.  The only person who can possibly have fulfilled this verse, is someone who came as Messiah, was cut off, dying a violent death, not for himself, but for the sins of others at some time before the Romans came and destroyed the city (Jerusalem) and the sanctuary (the Temple).  Jesus the Messiah.

Jesus also prophesied the desolations of Jerusalem, at the same time as pointing to a hopeful future when this desolation will be reversed.  He said, ‘Your house (the Temple) is left to you desolate’ Matthew 23.28. The Temple was left desolate in a spiritual sense immediately after the death and resurrection of Jesus, for the reasons given above.  From that point on God no longer accepted the sacrifice offered on Yom Kippur in the Temple, the most important event in the Jewish calendar.  This meant that the Temple building was now spiritually desolate.  40 years later physical desolation also came to the building, as the Romans destroyed it in fulfilment of the words of Daniel 9.26 and of Luke 19.41-44.  

But that is not the end of the story.  Speaking prophetically to Jerusalem, Jesus went on to look forward to the day of redemption, saying ‘For I say to you (i.e. Jerusalem), you shall see me no more until you say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”’ Matthew 23.29.  This is not just any old phrase.  In Hebrew it is ‘Baruch ha ba be shem adonai’  the traditional greeting for the coming Messiah. This corresponds to the prophecy recorded in Luke’s Gospel when Jerusalem will no longer be ‘trampled (ruled) by the Gentiles’ (Luke 21.24) and the numerous prophecies in the Tenach of Jerusalem’s coming redemption.  What will cause this change in the fortunes of the city?  The recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and the resulting outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those who call on his name.  This will be the trigger for his second coming to the earth as the Jewish people welcome him as Messiah with the words, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’.  Matthew 23.39.

Footnotes:  (After reading the footnote click the Back button)

  1.  ‘Crash Course in Jewish History Part 35 – Destruction of the Temple by Rabbi Ken Spiro.
  2.  ‘The Fall Feasts of Israel’ by Mitch Glaser page 104.
  3. ‘The Fall Feasts of Israel’ page 105.

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