When the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem the Hebrew people were devastated. The Psalmist describes his reaction to this horrible event:
“They (the Babylonians) behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees. They smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets. They burned your (God’s) sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name ... They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.” (Psalm 74:6-8).
Israel was horrified because the temple is where God dwelled among his people. With the temple gone, would God’s presence ever be felt in the land again? This was a legitimate fear for the people. The Psalmist continued: “We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be.” (V.9). Apparently he wondered.
The temple was central to Israel’s relationship with God and to it’s own identity as a people. God was present in his temple. So long as the temple stood, the Israelites knew God was dwelling in their midst, and they felt free from harm. What would life be like if the temple was destroyed?
From later OT writings we know that even without a building God could still, and did, commune with his people. But from the perspective of an ancient Hebrew, the temple was central.
- A faithful Israelite wanted to live righteously so he could commune with God in the temple: “Lord, who may dwell in our sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous.” (Psalm 15:1-2)
- The heart of a faithful Israelite yearned for communion with God in this special building. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God ... I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” (Psalm 84:1-2; 10)
- The Israelites who lived in communion with God and worshiped him felt secure in His protective care. “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore.” (Psalms 125:1-2)
Worship in the temple provided ancient Hebrews a sense of the transcendence of God. “In the temple, instead of want they found surfeit; instead of abandonment, care; instead of pollution, purity, instead of victimization, justice, instead of threat, security; instead of vulnerability, inviolability; instead of change, fixity; and instead of temporality, eternity.” (Madigan and Levenson, Resurrection, 93-94).
After the Babylonian destruction and exile, Israel did return to the land and were allowed to rebuild the temple. God was again present.
Christians don’t have a central building, an earthly structure, where God’s presence is located. Instead, God dwells in and among his people (1 Cor. 3:16 & 6:19). God dwells in his church, in you and me. God communes in and with us.
Can we bring that same zeal the Israelites had for their building to the church? Here, in the midst of other believers, we find abundance, care, purity, justice, security and eternity. We find these blessings not because of the perfection and faithfulness of other believers. We find it because God is perfect and faithful. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!”