THE WESTERN WALL
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-25-71 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Western Wall. It is a sermon, it is a message, on God’s sovereign grace and judgment in the lives of His people, and illustrated in the story of the temple of Jehovah in Jerusalem. Now we are going to go through some of these things in the Bible, I doubt whether you would find it profitable to turn to it yourself as I turn; so just listen.
In 2 Samuel and the seventh chapter, after King David had built his own palace, “The king said unto Nathan the prophet, See now, I dwell in an house of cedar, but the ark of God dwelleth in curtains” [2 Samuel 7:2]; still in the small curtain tabernacle. So the king said to Nathan he had it in his heart to build a beautiful sanctuary for the ark of God and for the worship of Jehovah. Nathan the prophet was delighted, and encouraged David in what he had in his heart [2 Samuel 7:3]. But that night the Lord appeared unto Nathan, and sent a message to David; and God said that David could not build the house. He was a man of war and a man of blood [1 Chronicles 28:3]. But the Lord said to David, “When thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, I will give thee a glorious son, and he shall build an house for My name” [2 Samuel 7:12-13].
So as the story continues in the sacred Word, David gathered together the material for the house [1 Chronicles 29:1-9], and laid it before God, “O Lord our God, all this store that we have prepared to build Thee an house, for Thine holy name, it all cometh of Thy hand, and is all Thine own” [1 Chronicles 29:16]. So when Solomon began to reign, he also began to build the house of the Lord at Jerusalem in Mount Moriah [2 Chronicles 3:1], where Abraham offered up Isaac [Genesis 22:1-10], where the King David propitiated the judgment and anger of God for the sin of his people when he bought Araunah’s threshing floor, and there offered sacrifice unto God [2 Samuel 24:10-25].
There in Mount Moriah, where the Lord appeared unto David, his father [2 Samuel 24:16-17], in that place he began to build the house of the Lord [2 Chronicles 3:1] on the place that David bought in the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite [2 Samuel 24:23-24]. Because of the constriction, the smallness of the place, Solomon built four great walls around the temple area and filled it in with earth in order to have a great platform of several acres on which to build the sanctuary of the Lord: the north wall, the east wall, the south wall, and the west wall. And because the temple itself faced east, it was moved back and was closest, the Holy of Holies, was closest to the western wall. And the temple of Solomon continued until 587 BC, when Nebuchadnezzar came and destroyed the city and burnt the temple and carried the people away into captivity [Jeremiah 39:1-10, 52:4-30].
After, and according to the prophecy of Jeremiah, after seventy years, the people returned [Jeremiah 29:10-14]. And in 535 BC, under Zerubabel, the foundation of the second temple was laid.
And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the Lord had laid the foundation of the house.
But many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, they wept with a loud voice . . . and there was a great clamor; for some of the people shouted with joy when the foundation of the second temple was laid, And some of them lamented with a loud voice.
Because of that lamentation the Lord raised up Haggai, and the prophet Haggai delivered the message of the Lord, who said this to the prophet: God said to Haggai,
Speak now to Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, and to Joshua the high priest, and to the residue of the people of the captivity who have come back from Babylon and have laid the foundation of this house, say to
them . . .
Is it not in your eyes, this second temple, as nothing in comparison to the first?
But be strong, O Zerubabel, and be strong O Joshua, for this second house shall have greater glory than the first house, saith the Lord of hosts.
[Haggai 2: 2-4, 9]
That was an astonishing thing for the prophet Haggai to say to the people. Solomon’s temple was the glory of the Lord; and when the foundation of that second temple was laid, why, those who returned from the captivity and the people wept and lamented who remembered the former temple [Ezra 3:12]. God said to them through Haggai the prophet, “The glory of this second temple shall be greater than that of Solomon’s” [Haggai 2:9].
That came to pass in two ways. First: when Herod became king of the Jews in 37 BC he said to them, “It is in my heart to build a glorious sanctuary.” The Jews were afraid of him. So he said, “I will bring the materials here”; and he did. And Herod exchanged stone for stone in building this greater temple. Finally, it was the glory of the earth. The temple itself, Josephus says, when Herod was done with it, looked like a great pile of snow. It was made out of gleaming white marble. The front of it was covered with solid gold. The top of it was covered with golden spikes to keep the birds from lighting on it. And great beautiful colonnaded cloisters, porches, surrounded it on every side. And the temple was embellished with grapes and vines made out of silver and gold, with bronze that flashed in the rising and the setting sun. The second temple, under Herod, was richer and more beautiful than the temple under Solomon.
And second: not only did Haggai’s prophecies come to pass because of the glory that Herod and the wealth that he lavished upon it, but it was greater because this is the temple into which our Lord Jesus walked as He taught the people [Luke 19:47, 21:37]; the glory of this second temple. Then it was that the Lord uttered the prophecy that so signally marked the truth of the Christian faith, coming over the brow of Olivet and to Jerusalem:
When He was come near, He beheld the city, and wept over it,
Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, the things that belong to thy peace! But they are hid from their eyes.
For the days shall come that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and shall compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side,
And shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee: and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.
Then turning to His disciples, the Lord said, When ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh.
Let them that are in Judea flee to the mountains . . .
Woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people.
And Jerusalem shall fall by the sword, and shall be led away into all nations, and trodden down until the times of the Gentiles cease.
And when Jesus went out, and departed from the temple, His disciples came and showed Him the great stones, and the great buildings of the temple.
And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
Jesus uttered those words in 33 AD just before the Jewish nation rejected Him [Matthew 27:20-31], and He was crucified [Matthew 27:32-50].
In 66 AD, thirty-three years after that prophecy, the smoldering discontent of the Jews against Roman oppression burst into open flame. They seized the tower of Antonio in Jerusalem and slew its Roman garrison. They seized the great Roman garrison at Masada. When the rebellion became known, the Roman emperor Nero sent Cestius Gallus from Syria to quell. He came down with thirty thousand Roman legionnaires. He besieged the city, and the Jews conquered him. And at Beth-Horan, on the way down to Caesarea, as Cestius Gallus retreated, they slew six thousand Roman legionnaires. And the whole land was aflame with rebellion. For such a thing to obtain would have meant the dissolution of the Roman Empire. For if this province succeeded, then another province would rebel, and another, and another. So Nero sent Vespasian, a man of humble origin, but a gifted soldier. He sent Vespasian to put down the rebellion in Palestine.
Vespasian came with his legions gathered from over the earth, and he started his campaign in the north. The general of the northern army was Josephus. And Vespasian conquered the northern army of the Jews, conquered Galilee, with Josephus in chains. He sold thirty thousand five hundred of the Jews as slaves, from the army he conquered there; and six thousand of the choice youth from Galilee he sent to Nero as a gift to dig the isthmus, the canal across the Isthmus of Corinth. They later were diverted to build temples, pagan temples.
Then Vespasian began to conquer the country coming south. While he was doing that, Nero died. And the government seized by Otho who was slain, then Vitellius in Rome who was slain. Then it was that the legionnaires in Judea proclaimed Vespasian as imperator; and the movement spread. And the legions throughout the East proclaimed Vespasian emperor. So they called him to Rome to assume the government. And Vespasian, now the Roman Caesar, left the prosecution of the war against the Jews in the hands of his son Titus.
Titus again gathered legions from over the east, and finished conquering the country, and finally besieged Jerusalem. The siege lasted for a hundred thirty-four days. The number of people in the city was astonishing. First, it was the Passover season when the siege began, and pilgrims were there by the hundreds of thousands. And second, as the armies of Vespasian and Titus had conquered the land, the people fled before it and finally into the city. At that time, Jerusalem had a normal population of two hundred fifty thousand; but when the guests of the Passover were shut in, and when the people fleeing before the army were shut in, the city had a population of two million seven hundred thousand four hundred; shut up by the great besieging army of the legions of Titus.
And what a wretched, and miserable, and unhappy city, for on the inside of the city there was civil war. Simon Ben Giora held the temple area and the lower city. And John of Gischala held the upper city. And in the city there was incessant war. There was a no man’s land between the temple and the upper city. And they fought day and night against one another, treading over dead bodies. They burned their stores. They burned their food, those warring sections. There was food in the city to last for years. They burned the storehouses of food, and famine became rampant.
As the days passed and as the siege continued they threw out of the city over six hundred thousand corpses that had died of the famine. And the miserable and wretched city, not only destroying itself like a body torn apart, but if anyone supposed to desert to the Romans, his throat was cut. And if he succeeded in deserting, they began to swallow gold coins. And a rabble that followed the Roman army discovered it. And those deserters were captured by night and dissected, in order to get the gold coins out of their viscera. One night the Arabians and Assyrians dissected more than two thousand deserters, seeking coins in their viscera.
When Titus the Roman emperor saw the valleys filled with corpses, in a groan he spread his hands before heaven and called God to his witness that this was not to be laid to his charge. And when he heard of the dissecting of those deserters he was horrified. But Titus had hardly control of the infuriated people. And the soldiers seemed to be filled with a maniacal fury. Listen to the lament of our Lord:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as the hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
[Matthew 23:37, 38]
The lament of Jesus, “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” [Matthew 23:38].
Josephus had prophesied that Vespasian would become the emperor of the empire. When that happened, Vespasian called Josephus, who was in chains before him, cut off his chains, elevated him to dignity; and the Romans used Josephus to make appeal to the people to lay down their arms, and to leave in peace with the Romans. So Josephus lived through every syllable and every wretched day of the besieging and the conquest of the city of Jerusalem. I have just read the lament of our Lord, “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” [Matthew 23:38]. As Josephus tells that story, he will stop from time to time, and listen to a lament of Josephus.
O most wretched city, what misery so great as thou didst suffer from thine intestine, that is internecine hatred. For thou couldst be no longer a place fit for God, nor couldst thou long continue in existence after thou hast been a sepulcher for the bodies of thine own people, and hast made the holy house itself, the temple, a burying place in this civil war. Yet, mayest thou again grow better, if perchance thou wilt hereafter appease the anger of that God who is the author of thy destruction.
Sounds like a lament of the Lord Jesus. Once again––and all through that tragic story does Josephus pause to speak his own heart––I read just once again from him:
I shall speak my mind here briefly, that neither did any other city ever suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, from the beginning of the world. They brought the Hebrew nation into contempt, they were the slaves, the scum, and the spurious and abortive offspring of our nation. While they overthrew the city themselves, and did so almost draw that fire upon the temple, which they seemed to think came too slowly. And indeed, when they saw that temple burning from the upper city, they were neither troubled at it, nor did they shed any tears on that account, while yet those passions were discovered among the Romans themselves. The Romans wept when the city was burned and the temple was burned, but not those incorrigible Jewish people.
Then Josephus writes again, I quote:
I suppose had the Romans made any longer delay in coming that the city would have been either swallowed up by the ground opening upon them, or else been destroyed as the land of Sodom perished. For it brought forth a generation of men much more atheistical than were those that suffered such punishments as in Sodom and Gomorrah.
“Thy house is left unto thee desolate” [Matthew 23:38]. So the siege began. There were one million three hundred thirty-seven thousand four hundred ninety dead. There was never a siege like that in the history of the world. On the fifteenth day of the siege the outer wall fell. On the twenty-fourth day the inner wall fell. On the seventy-second day the Tower of Antonio fell. And twelve days later, on the eighty-fourth day, the daily sacrifice ceased forever.
Even as the author of Hebrews says, “In that God says, A new covenant, He hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” [Hebrews 8:13]. As the Christians began to preach they prophesied that the temple services would cease. And on the eighty-fourth day of the siege, the daily sacrifices ceased. On the one hundred fifth day, the temple in the lower city burned. And on the one hundred thirty-fourth day, the whole city was in flames. And the foundations were dug up, and silence reigned over Jerusalem. “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” [Matthew 23:38].
When the Romans captured the Tower of Antonio, which overlooked the temple, they could look down and they saw that the sacrifice ceased. And the great mass of people began lamenting. And the Roman emperor Titus called for Josephus and set him on the tower wall of Antonio to speak to the leaders of the Jewish nation. And Josephus pled with them to spare the temple. And Titus said to tell them in their own language, “Let them choose their army, and I’ll take my army and we’ll fight this war any other place that you will name. But spare the temple.”
They looked with contempt upon the offer of Titus. And they looked upon Josephus as a traitor as in the days of Nebuchadnezzar the people had looked upon Jeremiah as a traitor because he said, “Let us make peace with Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians.” As they sought to kill Jeremiah, put him in a pit to die [Jeremiah 38:6], so they sought to slay Josephus, and did knock him down and grievously wounded him with a heavy rock. And they answered Titus and said, “This city will never be taken, because God dwells here, and this is God’s city.”
Titus had a conference with his commanders, and they agreed that whatever, they would spare the temple. But as the Roman soldiers poured through the breech in the wall they seemed to be filled with a divine fury, nothing could stop them: not the orders of Titus, not the raised clenched fist of his hand. And in that small temple area, the Roman soldiers fought hand to hand. And a Roman soldier stood on the shoulders of a fellow Roman and took a lighted torch and threw it through a window in the temple. It fell upon combustible material, and the things burst into flames. When the Jews saw it, they threw their bodies upon it to smother the fire; but the flame burned too furiously. And in the midst of falling walls from the cloisters, and charred and flaming beams falling to the ground, and the cries of the dead and the wailing of those who were seeing the temple destroyed, and the anger and cursing of the infuriated soldiers, the temple dissolved in flames and in blood.
After the passing of the days, the city was destroyed. And the Roman soldiers gathered all that remained. All the old, the infirmed, the sick, the crippled, the robbers, the insurrectionists, they slew on the spot. The tallest and most beautiful of the youth they reserved for the Roman triumph of Titus in Rome. All of those able bodied over seventeen years of age they sent to work in the mines in Egypt. And those that were unusually strong they sent as presents to the provinces, there to be gladiators in the theatres to fight with wild beasts. And silence reigned over the desolate city of Jerusalem. “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” [Matthew 23:38].
So the temple is destroyed. When the temple sacrifice ceased the seventeenth day of August, 70 AD, and in the days thereafter, the temple and the city were destroyed. And silence reigned over the unhappy and miserable city.
Then what? Have I not stood at Laodicea? There is nothing there but ruins buried in the ground. Have I not stood at Sardis, one of the great cities and capital of the world? Does it not lie in silence, buried beneath the ground? Have I not stood at Pergamos? Thyatira is gone. Philadelphia has vanished. Ephesus is a great ruin. And in Ephesus was a temple that was the seventh wonder of the world. I took a picture of where it once stood: nothing there but a sinking hole filled with malaria breeding mosquitoes and bulrushes, gone, silent forever.
There are no more Romans, just the Italians now; no more Hellenes, just the Greeks now. All of those ancient peoples have perished. But the Jew, but the Jew and that city of Jerusalem, and that temple area, with its Western Wall, nearest to the sanctuary of God.
May I read from the book that the rabbi placed in my hands?
Ever since the temple was destroyed, and the Jewish people deprived of Mount Moriah, we always yearned, dreamed, and hope with all our heart and with all our soul to return there, to return to God’s dwelling place, to our days as of old in the restored house of our life and glory. All through the generations we embraced the remains of the walls of the temple mount, and knocked at its gates. We climbed mountains and descended into valleys in order to peer at the temple mount through the cracks in its walls. We especially sought the stones of the Western Wall, lavishing kisses and rivers of tears on it, writhing in its dust; always in the full knowledge that the divine presence never forsakes the Western Wall, which is so close, so close to the site of the Holy of Holies.
The temple facing east, the Western Wall was the closest to the Holy of Holies.
As our sages have said, commenting on the Song of Songs 2:14, just as the dove never abandons her cote, even after you’ve taken her dovelets from under her, so the Jewish people, not withstanding the temple was destroyed, never ceased going up to Jerusalem on the three pilgrimage festivals each year to pray there opposite the temple mount, which is a gate of heaven. When the Jews were forbidden to enter Jerusalem, they would go up to the mountains around her in order to gaze at the temple mount, to mourn the destruction of God’s house, and to pray for its restoration. At first they would come to the mountain on the southwest of the city known as Mount Zion; then for a number of centuries they went up to the Mount of Olives to pray facing the temple mount. Sixteen hundred years ago our sages interpreted the passage in the Song of Songs 2:9, ‘Behold he stands behind our wall,’ to refer to the Western Wall of the temple mount. And even though the temple was destroyed, the Divine Presence never forsakes the Western Wall; for it is the closest place to the site of the Holy of Holies. Over many generations the Jewish people poured out their grief over their own exile, and over the exile of the divine presence onto the stones of the Western Wall. That is how the Gentiles came to call the wall, The Wall of Tears, or The Wailing Wall. And wherever Jews had the privilege of coming right up to the wall and kiss its stones and wallow in its dust, they would recite the following prayer: ‘We thank You God our God and God of our fathers for having kept us alive, and sustaining us, and making it possible for us to come to Your chosen house. May it be Your will that just as we have beheld it in its destruction, so may we be privileged to behold it when it has been rebuilt, when the exiles of Israel shall have been ingathered.’
The Western Wall, which fell under Jordanian control in 1948 fighting, and the Jews were prohibited from going there for nineteen years; we were cut off from our wall which stood there solitary while we were only able to peer at it through cracks from afar. Our hearts filled with longing. Then with the help of him who caused his presence to dwell at this holy place, the valiant soldiers of the Israel defense forces, in June1967, fighting like lions, delivered our wall from the alien conquerors. And we have been privileged to return to the remnant of the house of our Lord, and to pray beside it.
Have you ever stood at the temple at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World? Does anybody weep? Does anybody lament? Does anybody cry? Are there people who make pilgrimage just to stand on the sacred spot? There’s Somebody, sovereign above the nations of the earth, that rules and guides in the destiny of nations and of men.
And if we had hours left, we would speak of what God hath revealed in His Word concerning the chastisement of His people, and the judgments of God upon their sin and unbelief, and that holy, heavenly, divine purpose He has in His heart, a mustērion Paul calls it, for those people and that nation [Ephesians 3:1-11]. And the same Lord God that judges Israel is the same Lord God who judges us. As He spoke to His church at Ephesus [Revelation 2:1-7], at Pergamus [Revelation 2:12-17], at Thyatira [Revelation 2:18-29], at Laodicea [Revelation 3:14-22], the same Lord God speaks to us as a nation, as a people, as a church.
God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Far called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
[from “Recessional,” Rudyard Kipling, 1897]
God rules sovereign. God lives in elective purpose and choice.
O God, that I might read in Thy Book and listen in my heart for God’s purpose and plan for me, for mine, and for us. For there is no life outside of our Lord, and there’s no hope outside of Jesus. Master, today, place it in the hearts of our people, our families, our children, to give themselves to the call and purpose of God.
Do it. You, where you are, do it. There is no blessing outside of the gracious, loving judging hands of God. Do it. In a moment we shall stand and sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, a family you, to come; a couple you, or just you. If you’re in that balcony in the top most seat there’s time and to spare; come, down one of these stairways, on the lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front, “Pastor, today, I have chosen God, and here I am. Here I come” [Romans 10:8-13]. Do it now. Make it now. On the first note of the first stanza come, while we stand and while we sing.