‘The Temple’ in biblical studies generally refers to the temple at Jerusalem. But there were other temples in ancient Israel. The earliest one of which we hear is at Shiloh (1 Sam 1-3), which was destroyed by the Philistines (Jer 7:12). Later, the kingdom of Israel had temples at Bethel and Dan (1 Kgs 12; Amos 7:10); and from the 5th century BCE to the second the Samaritans had one on Mount Gerizim near Shechem.
Solomon’s Temple, the ‘First Temple’
The Hebrew Bible states that the Jerusalem temple, dedicated to YHWH, was first constructed under Solomon, son of David and King of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah (1 Kgs 6 and 2 Chr 3; also 2 Sam 7, though Solomon’s name is not mentioned).
Outside help for such a building scheme was needed, and in 1 Kgs 5:1-12 we read that Solomon made a treaty with King Hiram of Tyre for assistance, especially in supplying materials, in particular great quantities of cedar wood, a material that stood for strength, splendour, and glory (1 Kgs 5:1–8:62).
There is a detailed description of the building of the temple in 1 Kgs 6-7, which in general terms conforms to what we know from archaeological remains to be one common pattern of temple in the Syria-Palestine area. However, we do not know the date of the description, or how reliable it is. We must follow it as the only description we have, but it is somewhat confused, and does not seem to be written in a logical order.
Inside the Temple
The temple, whose orientation was towards the west, the reverse of Christian churches, had three parts (1 Kgs 6:1-38), first the vestibule (porch), something in the nature of an entrance into the second part, the nave (v. 3), and third the most holy part, the “inner sanctuary,” the “holy of holies” (v. 5). The overall dimensions of the temple were 60 cubits long (about 30.5 metres) and 20 cubits wide (about 10 metres). There were other rooms (“side chambers”), and there were windows.
The nave was completely panelled with cedar (1 Kgs 6:15-16), with carvings of gourds and open flowers (6:18), while the floor was cypress (6:15). A note right at the end of the account, like an afterthought, lists the contents of the nave, all of gold or plated with gold: the altar for incense, the table for the Bread of the Presence (see Lev 24:5-9), ten lampstands, five on each side, and cups, snuffers, basins, dishes for incense, and the sockets on which the doors into the nave and the doors into the inner sanctuary turned (1 Kgs 7:48-50).
Then in the inner sanctuary, which was the resting place of the ark of the covenant (1 Kgs 6:19), everything was again overlaid with gold. There were two gigantic ‘cherubim,’ images of semi-divine beings, probably similar to the winged lions and oxen seen in Assyrian statuary, each 10 cubits (5 metres) high, made of olive wood, with their wings outstretched, one wing of each touching the wall and the other touching the wing of the other in the middle. These were probably the symbolic protectors of the ark of the covenant, the holy object that represented the presence of YHWH with his people.
The house stood in a walled ‘inner court’ (6:36), itself inside the ‘great court’ (7:12), which probably enclosed the king’s palace and other buildings described in 7:1-11, as well as the temple (see Ezek 43:8). The most important object in the inner court was the great altar of burnt offering, believed to be the particular meeting point of people and their God, where sacrifice was made to YHWH, one of the main ways it was believed God was approached, and whereby he might forgive their unintended sins and failures. This is not mentioned in the building description in 1 Kgs 6-7 because it would already have existed; the account in 2 Chr 3-4, taken from Kings, adds it at 4:1. 2 Kgs 16:10-18 describes alterations made in the temple by King Ahaz in about 732 BCE, apparently at the behest of the king of Assyria; the most important of these was his removal of this altar, described as the ‘bronze altar,’ from its place in the centre of the court to the north side of the house, and its replacement by a new altar of a pattern Ahaz had seen in Damascus.
While everything inside the house, believed to be close to the presence of God, was covered with gold, the furniture in the inner court was of bronze, a less valuable metal (1 Kgs 7:14). The largest object was the so-called ‘sea,’ a huge (10 cubits = 5 metres across) vessel for water (7:23-26). It has been suggested that this was for priestly ablutions, but this seems unlikely in view of its public position. Perhaps it was intended to symbolize the Israelite belief that the wild natural seas had been calmed and contained by YHWH. There were vessels on stands containing water, probably for the rinsing of the animal sacrifices. And there were the two great pillars called Jachin and Boaz (7:15-22).
The Temple’s purpose
In general terms, worship and seeking God was the purpose of this temple on its central and prominent site in Jerusalem. In its magnificence and grandeur it represented the presence of God with his people. It was believed that mysteriously it spoke of the invisible presence of God, there in the midst of his people on earth. More mundanely, its presence on the same site as the royal palace spoke not at all mysteriously of its practical use to assert the divine legitimation of the king’s rule, and to enable the king to seek God’s approval for his projects and assistance in his plans. As the royal temple, it became effectively the national temple of Judah.
The purpose of the central building was to house the divine presence in the form of the ark, and to enable the priests to ‘serve’ God symbolically, giving God light from the lamp stands, food in the form of the bread, and a pleasant smell from the incense. The inner court, on the other hand, existed for worship primarily by means of sacrifice at the altar, and to accommodate pilgrims attending the major festivals (see Ps 122). There must also have been individuals coming with their particular problems and prayers, bringing them before YHWH – such as we read that in earlier times Hannah did in Shiloh (1 Sam 1:1-20). Here surely psalms were sung – certainly we hear about singing of psalms in temple worship in the books of Chronicles (see 1 Chr 16:8-36; the use of Ps 136:1 in 1 Chr 16:41; 2 Chr 5:13; 7:3, 6). There is also talk here of musical instruments being used in worship such as cymbals, harps, and lyres (2 Chr 5:12; 29:25).
The destruction of the Temple
The ‘Second Temple’
The building of the second temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel, after the return of some of the exiles, is described in Ezra 3-6. The date of its completion (Ezra 6:15) corresponds to 515 BCE. We have no detailed description of this temple, though we can assume it was on the same plan, but it was apparently on a smaller scale: specifically, there was only one (seven-branched) lamp stand rather than ten. This temple was entirely rebuilt on a much larger scale by Herod the Great, and completed in 63 CE. It was destroyed at the capture of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. It has never been rebuilt, and the site, known as the ‘Temple Mount’ to Israelis, is now the third Muslim holy place, Haram es-Sharif, containing the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque.
Haran, Menahem. Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1985.
Cogan, Mordechai. Pages 225-73 in 1 Kings: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 10. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Tomes, Roger. ‘”Our Holy and Beautiful House”: When and Why was 1 Kings 6-8 Written?’ Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 70 (1996): 33-50. Repr., pages 59-74 in Interpreting the Text. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015.