The King Has Left the Building

He has laid waste his booth like a garden,
    laid in ruins his meeting place;
the Lord has made Zion forget
    festival and Sabbath,
and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest.

The Lord has scorned his altar,
    disowned his sanctuary;
he has delivered into the hand of the enemy
    the walls of her palaces;
they raised a clamor in the house of the Lord
    as on the day of festival.

The Lord determined to lay in ruins
    the wall of the daughter of Zion;
he stretched out the measuring line;
    he did not restrain his hand from destroying;
he caused rampart and wall to lament;
    they languished together.

Her gates have sunk into the ground;
    he has ruined and broken her bars;
her king and princes are among the nations;
    the law is no more,
and her prophets find
    no vision from the Lord. – Lamentations 2:6-9 ESV

The city of Jerusalem had been reduced to a heap of rubble. Its gates had been burned and torn from their hinges. Every home in the city had been looted and destroyed, including the king’s royal palace. The streets lay deserted because the majority of the city’s inhabitants were now living in exile in Babylon. Those who had been left behind, the poorest of the poor, had been relegated to serving as vinedressers and plowmen for their Babylonian overlords.

But for the people of Judah, the greatest loss, and the one they had the most difficult time processing, was the destruction of the temple. They never expected to see that happen. After all, it was God’s house, the place where His divine presence hovered over the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. How could God allow His dwelling place to be destroyed by the Babylonians?  And yet, that is exactly what had happened. The book of 2 Kings provides a description of its destruction.

Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard and an official of the Babylonian king, arrived in Jerusalem. He burned down the Temple of the Lord, the royal palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. – 2 Kings 25:8-9 NLT

But before they destroyed the temple, they pillaged it and plundered every ounce of gold, all precious gems, every bolt of fine fabric, and every holy object that had been consecrated to the service of God.

The Babylonians broke up the bronze pillars in front of the Lord’s Temple, the bronze water carts, and the great bronze basin called the Sea, and they carried all the bronze away to Babylon. They also took all the ash buckets, shovels, lamp snuffers, ladles, and all the other bronze articles used for making sacrifices at the Temple. The captain of the guard also took the incense burners and basins, and all the other articles made of pure gold or silver. – 2 Kings 25:13-15 NLT

The value of their haul was incalculable, both financially and spiritually.

The weight of the bronze from the two pillars, the Sea, and the water carts was too great to be measured. These things had been made for the Lord’s Temple in the days of Solomon. – 2 Kings 25:16 NLT

But the Babylonians had not been content to ransack and loot the temple. They had summarily executed Seraiah the chief priest, Zephaniah the second priest, and the three keepers of the threshold.

Now, you can begin to understand the significance of the statement, “The Lord has blotted out all memory of the holy festivals and Sabbath days” (Lamentations 2:6 NLT). As horrific as the destruction of the temple may have been, the real loss suffered by the people of Judah was of far greater significance. It was about far more than the destruction of a building. It was about the elimination of the entire sacrificial system that God had ordained.

Consider closely the full import of the following verse.

They also took all the ash buckets, shovels, lamp snuffers, ladles, and all the other bronze articles used for making sacrifices at the Temple. – 2 Kings 25:14 NLT

Everything necessary for atonement had been destroyed or removed, leaving the people of Judah to face the stark and inconceivable reality that the guilt of their sins was permanent and unabsolvable. They no longer had any means of offering sacrifices to God and, therefore, no hope of receiving forgiveness for their sins. This would have been inconceivable to the people of Judah. They were the chosen people of God. He had promised to be with them forever. In fact, when Solomon had dedicated the temple, God had promised to make it His permanent dwelling place.

“I have heard your prayer and your petition. I have set this Temple apart to be holy—this place you have built where my name will be honored forever. I will always watch over it, for it is dear to my heart. – 1 Kings 9:3 NLT

But God had also warned Solomon that this promise came with conditions.

“But if you or your descendants abandon me and disobey the commands and decrees I have given you, and if you serve and worship other gods, then I will uproot Israel from this land that I have given them. I will reject this Temple that I have made holy to honor my name. I will make Israel an object of mockery and ridicule among the nations.” – 1 Kings 9:6-7 NLT

And when people ask, “Why did the Lord do such terrible things to this land and to this Temple?” (1 Kings 9:8 NLT), the answer would be simple and clear.

“Because his people abandoned the Lord their God, who brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and they worshiped other gods instead and bowed down to them.” – 1 Kings 9:9 NLT

But the perspective of the people of Judah who found themselves suffering the aftermath of God’s judgment was quite different. Rather than admit their own guilt and culpability, they accused God of rejecting and despising His own temple.

The Lord has rejected his own altar;
    he despises his own sanctuary.
He has given Jerusalem’s palaces
    to her enemies.
They shout in the Lord’s Temple
    as though it were a day of celebration. – Lamentations 2:7 NLT

According to their misguided and misinformed logic, God’s anger had been directed against the temple and the city, not against them. In their minds, the temple had become the symbol of God‘s presence. They had turned it into a kind of talisman or good luck charm that guaranteed their security and safety, regardless of their behavior. They could sin and then make their way to the temple, offer their obligatory sacrifices, and walk away with their spiritual slate wiped clean.

But God had repeatedly reminded the Israelites that sacrifice alone was not enough. He was looking for repentant hearts. They had been guilty of simply going through the motions, offering sacrifices to stave off punishment, but without any intention of changing their ways.

“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”
    says the Lord.
“I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fattened cattle.
I get no pleasure from the blood
    of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to worship me,
    who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony?
Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
    the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath
    and your special days for fasting—
they are all sinful and false. – Isaiah 1:11-13 NLT

It was King David who wrote the following words after his sin with Bathsheba had been exposed by God.

You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
    You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
    You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. – Psalm 51:16-17 NLT

And yet, the people of Judah remained unbroken in spirit and unrepentant of heart. They mourned the loss of their city and grieved over the elimination of the sacrificial system, but they displayed no remorse over their conduct. In their minds, the temple had been their salvation. The building itself, along with its religious accouterments, and the ritualistic nature of the sacrificial system, had been their get-out-of-jail-free card. Now it was gone.

But long before the Babylonians invaded their city and destroyed the temple, Jeremiah had pleaded with them to refocus their attention on God.

“‘Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. But don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the LORD’s Temple is here. They chant, “The LORD’s Temple is here! The LORD’s Temple is here!” But I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever.”’ – Jeremiah 7:3-7 NLT

Now, the temple was gone. But God was not. The building had been destroyed, but the One whose glory had once hovered over the mercy seat was still very much alive and well. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had punished His people but had not abandoned them. The temple had never been intended to “contain” God. It had never been meant to be worshiped in place of God.

This is what the Lord says:

“Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?
    Could you build me such a resting place?” – Isaiah 66:1 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson