Was Solomon’s temple used for more centuries than the second temple built by Nehemiah?
Solomons temple was used for approximately 400 years through various rulers, which is longer than the wall which was subsequently built around the temple. Nehemiah did not build a temple, rather he rebuilt the second temples wall about 444 BC in the space of 52 days. He was governor of Persian Judea under Artaxerxes I of Persia (465–424 BC).
After the Babylonian captivity and the Persian conquest of Babylonia, Cyrus II of Persia allowed the Jews to return to Judea and rebuild the Temple. The construction was finished in 516 BCE. Then, Artaxerxes I allowed Ezra and Nehemiah to return and rebuild the city’s walls and to govern Judea, which was ruled as Yehud province under the Persians. During the Second Temple period, especially during the Hasmonean period, the city walls were expanded and renovated, constituting what Josephus calls the First Wall. Herod the Great added what Josephus called the Second Wall somewhere in the area between today’s Jaffa Gate and Temple Mount. Agrippa I (r. 41–44 CE) later began the construction of the Third Wall, which was completed just at the beginning of the First Jewish–Roman War.
Solomon’s temple is also referred to as the first temple, when David was king, he asked God if he could build a temple (1 Chronicles 17:1–15). God told him no but allowed him to gather the materials his son Solomon would need to build it (1 Chronicles 22:2–5). Solomon began building the temple in 966 BC, Solomon’s temple was destroyed and ransacked by the Babylonians in 586 BC, some four hundred years later (2 Kings 25:9). King Cyrus of Persia allowed the temple to be rebuilt (Ezra 1:2) under the leadership of Zerubbabel. He appointed Zerubbabel as governor of Judah (Haggai 1:1), and right away Zerubbabel began rebuilding the temple with the help of Joshua, the high priest (Ezra 3:2–3, 8). The first temple, built by King Solomon, had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC (2 Kings 25:8–10).
It took Zerubbabel two years to rebuild the foundation of the temple. Then construction was delayed by Samaritan settlers whose friendly overtures masked a hidden hostility (Ezra 4:1–5). As a result of the opposition to the temple construction, Persia withdrew support for the project, and for seventeen years the temple sat unfinished (Ezra 4:21).
Four years later, in 516 BC, the temple was completed and dedicated with great fanfare (Ezra 6:16). The Jews also observed the Passover (Ezra 6:19). It’s interesting that Zerubbabel is never mentioned in connection with the dedication ceremonies, nor is his name mentioned again after Ezra 5:1. For this reason, Zerubbabel’s temple is often referred to simply as the “second temple.”
Zerubbabel’s temple was built on a smaller scale and with much fewer resources. Also, Solomon’s temple had housed the Ark of the Covenant, which was no longer in Israel’s possession. And at the first temple’s dedication, the altar had been lit by fire from heaven, and the temple had been filled with the Shekinah; attendees at the second temple’s dedication witnessed no such miracles. Even so, Haggai prophesied that the second temple would one day have a magnificence to outshine the glory of the first (Haggai 2:3–9). Haggai’s word was fulfilled 500 years later when Jesus the Christ arrived on the scene (Luke 2:22, 46; 19:45). Zerubbabel’s temple was not as outwardly impressive as Solomon’s, but it had a greater glory: the Messiah Himself walked the courts of the temple that Zerubbabel built.
Over the next four hundred years, a series of Gentile rulers alternatingly built up and defiled the second temple. The cycle culminated in a 39 BC battle in which King Herod took control of the temple, slaughtering many of the priests and defenders in the process, but also keeping the Roman soldiers from entering the sanctuary. Herod proposed to renovate the temple in 20–19 BC, his reason being the post-exilic temple was sixty cubits shorter than Solomon’s original. Despite the Jews’ fears that he meant to tear it down and never rebuild, the main work on the temple was completed in one-and-a-half years, and the outer courtyard in eight years. Finishing touches continued until AD 63. Herod’s temple, then, was a restoration and expansion of Zerubbabel’s second temple.
On the eastern edge of Jerusalem, just west of Gethsemane and northwest of the Kidron Valley, sat the temple of Herod. The dimensions of Herod’s temple court were 1,550 feet by 1,000 feet — about 35 acres. On the far northwest corner sat Antonia Fortress, the home of the temple garrison that stayed alert for disturbances in the temple — disturbances that the governor was quick to quell so as not to attract unwanted attention from Rome.
Two gates provided entry into the court of Herod’s temple from the south; four from the west; and one, the Golden Gate, from the east; also, an underground passage led to the court from Antonia Fortress. Just inside the walls ran porticoes — roofed walkways flanked on the outside by the great walls and the inside by rows of tall marble pillars. The northern approach to the temple was the most level and easiest to climb, but the southern gates (the double Huldah and the triple Huldah) were the most frequently used. Because a ravine lined the southern wall, great staircases led to the actual gates. Tunnels passed through and into a honeycombed underground area called “Solomon’s Stable.” More stairs led up to the southern section of the Court of the Gentiles. The eastern portico was named for King Solomon, and it was somewhere along this wall that the twelve-year-old Jesus debated with the scholars (Luke 2:46). It’s possible that the highest corner of the eastern wall was where Satan took Jesus in Matthew 4:5.
Herod’s temple sat skewed in the center of the large courtyard so that its entrance might better face due east. A balustrade — a low wall of stone posts and caps — defined the inner boundary of the Court of Gentiles. It was this courtyard, between the balustrade and the outer walls, where Gentiles could go to worship. It was also this court where Jesus drove out the money changers in Matthew 21:12. It was unlawful for any Gentile to go past the balustrade, an offense punishable by death (Acts 21:27–32).
Within the Court of the Gentiles, getting closer to Herod’s temple, was the Court of the Women, accessed through the Beautiful Gate. Here were thirteen trumpet-shaped containers for voluntary offerings. Into one of these a widow donated her last two mites, an act that Jesus noticed in Mark 12:41–44.
On the west side of the Court of the Women were fifteen steps that led up to the Gate of Nicanor, where Mary brought the Baby Jesus at the time of His presentation (Luke 2:22–24). Passing through the Nicanor Gate would lead one into the Court of Israel, accessible only to ceremonially clean Jewish men. A low balustrade and another staircase separated the Court of Israel from the Court of the Priests; three gates, one each from the south, west, and north, provided priests more direct access from the outer courtyard.
In the Court of Priests was the altar for the burnt offerings. Forty-five feet on each side and twenty-two feet high, the altar was made of uncarved stone. In an earlier time, the nearby area where the animals were slaughtered was fitted with a trough of running water, fed by a spring and underground cisterns to wash away the blood. It’s possible this was retained in Herod’s restoration. Also in the Court of Priests was a large basin called the brazen sea or the laver, resting upon twelve bulls cast in bronze. Beyond these fixtures was yet another staircase leading to a curtain embroidered with a map of the known world that covered the entrance to the temple proper. Only the priest on duty was allowed to advance beyond that curtain.
Inside Herod’s temple things were set up similarly to the tabernacle of Moses. Beyond the first veil was a hall containing the golden altar of incense, the golden table of showbread, and the golden lampstand. It was this lampstand, the seven-armed menorah, which was said to have miraculously stayed lit during the eight-day rededication of the temple after the Maccabean victory in the second century BC.
Only the high priest could go beyond the final veil to the Holy of Holies, and that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. The floor, walls, and ceiling of this room were plated with gold. Because the Ark of the Covenant had been lost years before, Herod’s temple had no furnishings in the Holy of Holies, although it is possible a stone held the place of the ark. It was this veil, leading into the Holy of Holies, that tore from the top down when Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27:51). Around the Holy of Holies, to the south, west, and north, were three stories of interconnected rooms. Openings from the story immediately above the Holy of Holies allowed workers to be lowered into that room to make repairs without touching the floor.
Herod’s temple lasted until AD 70, which marked the end of the second temple era. At that time, after a long war between the Jewish Zealots and the Roman authorities, four Roman legions, led by Titus, besieged Jerusalem and burned down the temple. As the temple burned, the gold and silver ornamentation melted and seeped between the cracks in the stones. In their zeal for a stipend, the Roman soldiers took the temple apart, stone by stone, fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24:1–3. The Jewish people were scattered in the Diaspora, and did not return en masse to Israel until after World War II. The temple mount, where Herod’s temple stood, is now home to the Islamic Dome of the Rock. All that remains of Herod’s work on the temple mount is the Western Wall, a 1,600-foot-long portion of the retaining wall Herod had constructed to expand the temple mount.