The Temple at Jerusalem

D. H. B. Falconer, P.M.


Since the earliest times, man has built temples or shrines where he could worship his god in his "house". The Tower of Babel is the first such structure mentioned in the Bible, Babel being the name of one of the chief cities founded by Nimrod in the land of Sumer, or ancient Babylon. Nimrod was a prodigious builder and was King of Babylon at the time of the Tower of Babel. Although as yet there is no archaeological evidence to confirm the existence of a city and tower of Babylon before about 1800 BC, a text of Sharkalisharri, King of Agade about 2250 BC, mentions his restoration of the temple-tower or "ziggurat" at Babylon, which implies the existence of an earlier sacred city on the site. It is now believed that when Ur-Nammur, the King of Ur, built a ziggurat in about 2100 BC, it replaced the first Tower of Babel, probably constructed prior to 4000 BC. The ziggurats comprised a series of superimposed platforms, each from about 10 to 20 metres in height and of progressively diminishing area; access was by ramps or stairways. The structure was surmounted by a temple, to which it was believed that God would descend and communicate with mankind. The traditional history of the Masons' Guilds stated that their trade secrets were first given to the trade by Nimrod. The old Charges of Nimrod are still included in the ritual of operative Free Masons, the first of which requires that all Free Masons shall be true to their God, their King, their Lord and their Masters.

When he was 70 years old Abraham, who was born "Abram" in Ur of the Chaldees around 2160 BC, received a Divine call to search for a land where he could build an Israelitish nation free from idolatry. To fulfil his mission, Abraham first moved to Harran on the Balikh River, a tributary of the Euphrates 1,000 kilometres north-west of Ur, where he stayed until his father died about five years later. Thence he travelled southwards in stages to the vale of Moreh, between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim in Canaan, where Yahweh promised Abraham the possession of the whole land from the Euphrates to the south-west. Abraham then built "an altar to the Lord, who appeared unto him." As the Canaanites were jealous of Abraham, he soon moved south to the mountainous district between Beth-el and Ai, where he also built an altar to Jehovah. Abraham continued to move southwards until driven by famine from the Negeb into Egypt, but he later returned as a wealthy man to the mountainous district, where he again established the worship of Jehovah. God reiterated his promise to Abraham, who then moved to Mamre near Hebron, where he built another altar.

In about 2080 BC, after rescuing his nephew Lot by defeating a confederation of four Babylonian kings under the leadership of Chedorlaomer, the despotic King of Elam, Abraham was blessed in the name of God by Melchizedek, the King of Salem and "priest of the most high God". Melchizedeck prefigured Christ, offering bread and wine as the memorials of sacrifice. Because in this sacrament he glimpsed a messianic revelation of El Elyon, the most high God, Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek in token of this recognition. God then renewed his promise to Abraham with the explanation that, before his people should inherit Canaan, they would spend 400 years in a foreign land. God also revealed himself to Abraham as El Shaddai, the all powerful God, able to consummate his staggering promise of a coming Redeemer. It was at this juncture that Abram, which signifies "eminent father", changed his name to Abraham, which signifies "father of a multitude", as a token of what El Shaddai would do in his redemptive power. The renewal of the covenant was also sealed by the introduction of the ceremony of circumcision, as a spiritual symbol of the purification of life at its very source, as well as signifying the messianic hope for a Redeemer and Covenant-Fulfiller. Abraham was 175 years old when he died, which was 115 years before Jacob and his family migrated to Egypt. As Jacob passed out of Canaan around 1870 BC, God gave him an assurance that his descendants would return to the Promised Land.


As the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were semi-nomadic, they could not build a permanent shrine for worship, as was the custom in the cities of Mesopotamia when Abraham left Ur. After a sojourn of 430 years in Egypt, the Israelitish nation came into being with the institution of the Feast of the Passover and the beginning of the Exodus around 1440 BC, under the leadership of Moses and with the guidance of the Pillar of Cloud by day and the Pillar of Fire by night. During the second year of the Exodus, Moses made the most zealous intercessions on behalf of his people, spending two periods of forty days and nights on Mount Sinai. Moses was rewarded when the glory of the Lord was revealed to him, the tables of the law were renewed and a new covenant was made with Israel. It was then that the Tabernacle, or "tent of congregation", was erected as a portable sanctuary in accordance with directions given to Moses by Jehovah. The Tabernacle was oriented from east to west and later became a prototype for the temple at Jerusalem.

The Tabernacle was composed of two parts, the "mishkan" or tabernacle proper and the "ohel", or tent. In its strictest sense, the word "tabernacle" refers to the ten linen curtains that were hung along one end and the two sides of the tabernacle proper, the walls of which consisted of planks of shittim or acacia wood plated on both sides with sheets of gold. The curtains had figures of cherubim woven into the blue, purple and scarlet tapestry work. The interior of the mishkan was divided by a veil of the same material, colour and design as the curtains, to form two compartments. The larger compartment at the eastern end was called the "hekhal" or "Holy Place". The western compartment was a perfect cube called the "debir" or "Holy of Holies", in which the Ark of the Covenant rested under the protective wings of two huge cherubim. Covering the whole was the tent of foxy black or brownish colour, being a fly roof of goat-hair canvas called camelot, such as is still used by nomadic Arabs. The tabernacle continued to be the provisional meeting place of God and the "chosen people" long after their entry into Canaan. Under the Judges it was at Shiloh and in Saul's reign it was at Nob and later at Gibeon. The Hebrews naturally attached a great deal of symbolism to various aspects of the Tabernacle, as well as the related ceremonials. In particular, the "tent of congregation" typified God dwelling with his people, while the Ark of the Covenant was a constant reminder of God's presence and forgiving love. The twelve cakes of shewbread, placed on a table in front of the "menorah" in the holy place, represented the dedication of the Twelve Tribes of Israel to divine service. The "menorah", which was a seven branched candlestick of pure gold, typified Israel as a people called to be the children of light. The incense ascending from the altar of incense, which was placed in the middle of the space near to and in front of the inner veil, symbolised the act of prayer. The early Christian evangelists interpreted the two compartments of the Tabernacle as typifying the earthly and heavenly aspects of Christ's ministry. They said that, by His symbolism of the rent veil, Christ had opened up for everyone a way into the holy of holies.


Because of Egypt's role in the history of the Hebrew people, as well as their cultural and intellectual links with the Israelites before and during the construction of the first temple at Jerusalem, our predecessors in operative Free Masonry and those who drafted our rituals during the emergence of speculative Freemasonry, were firmly convinced that Egypt had provided the model on which King Solomon's Temple was based. However, archaeological excavations in Iraq, Syria and the Levant since the 1930's, provide irrefutable evidence that the Temple at Jerusalem belongs in the direct line of tradition found in the countries of the Middle East. This tradition was bringing about significant transitions in human attitudes to the divinity for at least 2,000 years before the construction of the Temple at Jerusalem. The first and perhaps the oldest such temple was discovered in the early 1930's. It was a small temple, adjacent to the ancient royal palace of Tell Tainat in the north of Syria.

During the 1950's a Canaanite temple was discovered while excavating the ancient lower city of Hazor in the north of Palestine. Hazor was only occupied for about 500 years, having been destroyed and burnt some 500 years before the construction of the first temple at Jerusalem, but never again inhabited. Excavations on the banks of the Euphrates River at Lake el-Assad, during the 1970's, revealed four similar small temples at Emar, constructed some 200 to 400 years before the first temple at Jerusalem. Other temples of similar design have been discovered at Ebla and Moumbaqat in Syria, all predating the first temple at Jerusalem by about 800 years. All of these temples have similar characteristics to the first temple at Jerusalem, being elongated about 3:1 in plan and subdivided into two compartments. Most are fronted by a porch or entrance way similar to that at Jerusalem, some with columns.

The various temple designs of Palestine and Syria indicate that King Solomon's Temple, which was the first temple constructed at Jerusalem, could not have been copied from a single temple, but rather that it was patterned on a general type that allowed a logical progression of priests and worshippers from the profane outside world to the sacred inner sanctum. The layout of those temples was similar to that of the Tabernacle, which was contemporaneous with some of the oldest temples so far discovered. The deep significance of this progression of priests and worshippers, commencing from the profane outside world and leading to the sacred precincts, is reflected in the names of the compartments in the Tabernacle and later in King Solomon's Temple. The Phoenicians, who were more advanced culturally than the Hebrews, played a great part in the design and construction of King Solomon's Temple. Their long experience in temple building undoubtedly had a significant influence on the temple at Jerusalem.


With the death of Saul, about 1010 BC, David became the King of Judah. Seven or eight years later he was anointed King over all Israel. When David had consolidated his power and built a permanent residence for himself, the lack of a shrine of Yahweh seemed invidious to him. He said "I dwell in a house of cedar, but the Ark of God dwelleth within curtains". But David was stained with the blood of his enemies, which precluded him from building a temple to the Lord. Nevertheless he collected materials, gathered treasure and purchased a site for the construction. The site chosen was the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite, within the area now called Haram esh-Sherif on Mount Moriah on the east side of the "Old City" of Jerusalem. While the precise location is uncertain, it is believed that the highest part of the rock now covered by the mosque known as the "Dome of the Rock", almost certainly was the location of the Holy of Holies in the first temple.

King Solomon commenced the actual construction in the fourth year of his reign and completed it seven years later, about 950 BC. To facilitate the work he entered into a treaty with Hiram King of Tyre, whereby Hiram would permit Solomon to obtain cedar and cypress wood and blocks of stone from Lebanon. Furthermore, Solomon's workmen would be permitted to fell the timber and to quarry and hew the stones under the direction of Hiram's skilled workmen. In addition, Solomon was provided with the services of a skilful Tyrian artisan named Huram, to take charge of the castings and of the manufacture of the more valuable furniture and furnishings of the temple. In return for all of the services provided by Hiram, Solomon agreed to send to him every year 4,400,000 litres of crushed wheat, 4,400,000 litres of barley, as well as 440,000 litres of wine and 440,000 litres of oil. Solomon raised a levy of forced labour out of all Israel, totalling 30,000 men, which he sent to Lebanon in relays of 10,000 a month. Adoniram, who had been an officer of King David in charge of labour gangs, continued under King Solomon and was placed in charge of the levy working in Lebanon. Solomon also had 70,000 burden bearers and 80,000 hewers of stone in the hill country, as well as 3,300 officers who had charge of the people who carried out the work. Some thirty years after the completion of the temple, when Rehoboam sent Adoniram to enforce the collection of taxes, the exasperated populace rebelled and stoned him to death.

The temple was a prefabricated building, constructed of limestone quarried and dressed in or near Jerusalem and timber from the forests of Lebanon. It was oriented due east-west, with a single entrance at the eastern end. King Solomon's Temple was constructed with an uncovered porch or entrance way at the eastern end, called the "ulam". The porch was 10 cubits in length along the axis of the temple and 20 cubits wide. It was fronted by two columns, that on the right, or north side, being called "Jachin" and that on the left, or south side, being called "Boaz". The compartments of the Tabernacle were replicated in King Solomon's Temple, but they were made twice as large. The porch gave entrance into the "hekhal", or Holy Place, which was 40 cubits long, 20 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. The Holy Place was lit by latticed windows near the ceiling. This hall was accessible only to priests and was used for daily worship, for religious ritual and for the presentation of offerings. At the western end was the "debir", or Holy of Holies, which was a perfect cube having sides of 20 cubits. There were no windows in the Holy of Holies, which received light only through the doorway from the Holy Place. The Holy of Holies was accessible only to the high priest, probably once a year for the atonement ceremony.

The temple proper was surrounded on the north, west and south by store chambers three stories high. Among these, on the southern side, was the "Middle Chamber" to which access was gained by a winding stair in the south-east corner of the building. The whole structure was on a platform about 2 metres above the upper or inner court that surrounded it, requiring ten steps to ascend. This inner court was raised above the surrounding great, or outer court, which required eight steps to ascend. The outer court was also raised above the surroundings, requiring another seven steps to ascend. Each of these courts was enclosed by walls comprising three rows of hewn stone, surmounted by a row of cedar beams. In the upper or inner court, as also for the court of the Tabernacle, there was a brazen altar of burnt offering, a brazen sea and ten brazen lavers for use by the priests in their ablutions and for ceremonial purification.

There is no doubt that King Solomon's Temple was a magnificent edifice which surpassed anything that had preceded it, being noted for the lavish beauty of its detail and the opulence of its furnishings rather than for its size. No stonework was visible inside, because the compartments were ceiled and panelled with cedar wood and the floors were planked with cypress. Access to the Holy Place was through double folding doors of cypress wood, each divided into upper and lower sections. The Holy of Holies was separated from the Holy Place by double doors of olive wood. Both sets of doors were usually left open, but were screened with veils similar in ornamentation to those in the Tabernacle. The walls and doors were carved with palm trees, garlands, opening flowers and cherubim, richly inlaid with gold. The ceiling and floor of the Holy Place, as well as the whole of the interior of the Holy of Holies, were overlaid with gold plate.

The furnishings of the Holy Place included an altar of incense, ten golden seven-branched lampstands, often called lampsticks; also twelve tables for the loaves of shewbread. Within the Holy of Holies there were two cherubim, 10 cubits high, carved from olive wood and overlaid with gold, symbolising the majestic presence of God. Modern research shows that the cherubim would have been winged sphinxes, each with the body of a lion and a human head, this hybrid animal being extremely common in the iconography of western Asia between 1800 BC and 600 BC. The cherubim stood in a brooding attitude with outstretched wings, their adjacent wing tips touching above the Ark of the Covenant resting in the middle of the apartment, while the tip of each other wing touched the north and south walls respectively. The ark of the covenant was made of shittim or acacia wood, overlaid with pure gold within and without. It contained the two tables of stone on which were engraved the ten commandments, these being the terms of God's covenant with Israel.


The two great pillars at the porch giving entrance to King Solomon's Temple were hollow and cast of bronze, 18 cubits high, 12 cubits in circumference and four fingers thick. They were surmounted by double capitals, 5 cubits in their combined height, but probably cast in two separate parts. The lower part, or chapiter, was the lotus work, comprising four open and everted petals each 4 cubits wide. The upper part, or capital, was a bowl rather than a sphere. The hollow columns were cast by the Tyrrians in moulds dug in the ground, using the "lost wax" method developed by the Assyrians in the Bronze Age, probably around 1200 BC. In this method the mould is formed round a wax core, which melts away during casting. With large castings such as the pillars, the wax core would be formed round a sand or earth core. The Tyrrians were experienced in this method of casting, such columns being common in Syria, Phoenicia and Cyprus at that time.

Modern research indicates that the upper bowl probably was a vessel to contain oil, which could be lit at night. Similar decorated pillars are known to have been used at shrines in Palestine and Cyprus, during the period 1000 BC to 900 BC. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing around 450 BC, described two large pillars near the temple of Hercules at Tyre, which "shone at night". Like the Phoenician models, the two immense incense stands at the porch of King Solomon's Temple would have illuminated the facade of the temple on Mount Moriah at night, whilst also catching the first glint of the Jerusalem sunrise. They have been interpreted as sacred obelisks, their blazing smoking wicks recalling to worshippers the pillars of fire and cloud that led the Israelites of old through the wilderness.

The pillars were completed and named before the dedication of the temple. Although their names have often been ascribed as enshrining the memory of David's ancestry, it is now known that this was not the reason for naming them. It has been shown convincingly that the names of these two columns stood for the initial, or key words, spoken by oracles and inscribed on the columns. In seeking to give power to the Davidic dynasty, as well as to express King Solomon's gratitude to the Almighty, the oracles probably used invocations such as: "Yahweh will establish (jachin) thy throne forever" and "The king's strength (boaz) is in Yahweh". The bowls were not representations of the then known terrestrial and celestial globes, nor did the pillars serve as archives for the constitutional rolls, as is often suggested.


Ancient temples usually served as state treasuries, being filled with booty or emptied to pay tribute as the power of the land waxed and waned. King Solomon's Temple was no exception. The treasures which King Solomon had accumulated in the temple were raided in the reign of his son, Rehoboam, by Shishak of Egypt. Later kings, including even Hezekiah who adorned the temple, used the treasures to purchase the favour of allies or to pay tribute and buy off invaders. Then followed idolatrous kings who desecrated the temple and allowed it to fall into decay, so that, by the time of Josiah three centuries after construction of the temple, it was in need of considerable repair which had to be financed by contributions from the worshippers. Finally the temple was looted by Nebuchadnezzar and sacked in 587 BC during his destruction of Jerusalem. The deportation of the Hebrews into Babylonish captivity commenced with the capture of the Ten Tribes of Israel in 722 BC and was completed following the destruction of Jerusalem. Ezekiel was captured and deported to Babylon in 597 BC with Jehoiachin, becoming an important Hebrew prophet of the Exile.

Ezekiel's mission was to comfort the captives in Babylon, which comprised "all the house of Israel". His prophesies were numerous, including many concerning the surrounding nations, all of which were fulfilled. He made many prophesies of Israel's final restoration, including his messianic prophesy that the false shepherds would give way to the True Shepherd, foretelling the coming of Christ. He also spoke of the restoration of the land and of the people and gave his vision of the restored nation and their worship in the new Kingdom. The exiles were heartened in their grief by Ezekiel's vision of a new Temple, which would be erected during their restoration. Ezekiel's description related to a temple similar to King Solomon's, but he gave more details which help us to establish details that are missing from descriptions of the latter. Ezekiel's temple was never built, even when the second temple was constructed at Jerusalem.


Cyrus came to the throne of Anshan, an Elamite region, about 559 BC. He clashed with a Median king and when the Median army rebelled Cyrus captured the walled city of Ecbatana (modern Hamadan) and the Persians were then in the ascendancy. Cyrus rapidly extended his conquests, defeating Croesus the king of Lydia about 546 BC, then conquering Babylon in 539 BC, thus founding the vast Persian Empire, under whose dominion Judea was to remain a province for the next two centuries. Cyrus established his capital at Pasargadae in the land of Parsa and ruled until his death in 530 BC. In 538 BC Cyrus issued the following decree, releasing the Jews in Babylonian Exile: "Thus saith Cyrus King of Persia, all the kingdoms of the earth hath Jehovah, the God of heaven, given me; and he hath charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all his people, his God be with him and let him go to Jerusalem ... and build the house of Jehovah ..." About 42,360 Israelites returned progressively, under the leadership of Sheshbazzar or Zerubbabel in 535 BC, under Ezra in 458 BC and under Nehemiah in 445 BC.

The first small band who returned to Jerusalem soon began rebuilding the temple, under Jeshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the governor. However, their meagre resources and the many difficulties encountered delayed the completion until 515 BC, almost twenty years after leaving Babylon, but long before all the exiles had returned from captivity. Indeed, it was only completed then because of the efforts of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, who urged the work on in the later stages. No accurate description of the second temple exists, but the layout appears to have been similar to that of the first temple with the height increased to 60 cubits. However it was much less ornate, lacked the sumptuous finishes and the furnishings were scanty. So far as is known, the Holy Place in the second temple, like the first tabernacle, had only a curtain at its entrance, one lampstand, one table of shewbread and the golden altar of incense. Another curtain gave entrance to the Holy of Holies, but it was empty because the Ark of the Covenant had been destroyed when Jerusalem was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. Nevertheless, the second temple, usually referred to as Zerubbabel's Temple, survived almost 500 years, much longer than any other temple at Jerusalem, finally being taken by the Roman general Pompey when he captured Jerusalem in 63 BC. Although Pompey did not harm the temple, the Roman consul Crassus plundered it of all its gold and other valuables nine years later.


A discussion of the temples at Jerusalem would not be complete without mentioning Herod's Temple. Our principal source of information is Josephus, the Jewish historian and priest who flourished about 70 AD. Herod the Great, or Herod the tetrarch of Galilee, came from the Negeb between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. He was of Idumaean blood and Edomite stock, descended from Esau. Herod was an indefatigable builder, who wished to show his own grandeur by restoring the temple as a larger, more complex and much more beautiful building. He took great pains to carry out the reconstruction piecemeal, without interrupting the ritual observances, even training 1,000 priests as masons to build the shrine. The work was begun about 20 BC and the main structure was finished in ten years, but the whole complex was not finally completed until 64 AD. The temple area was twice that of Zerubbabel's Temple, but the total area of development was more than ten hectares. The temple was burned when Jerusalem fell to the Roman armies in 70 AD, when the golden candelabrum, the golden table of shewbread and other valuables were carried off to Rome. In Rome, bas reliefs carved on the triumphal arch of Titus depict Roman soldiers carrying off the looted temple furniture.


Lodges of operative Free Masons have always adopted the orientation of the temples at Jerusalem, with the entrance in the east and the master in the west. Lodges of speculative Freemasons are the reverse, which causes some confusion in symbolism, because the words of the ritual are based on the original orientation.