“Look, what large stones and what large buildings!” cried a disciple of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem (Mark 13:1). King Herod and his dynasty had spent decades fabulously rebuilding Israel’s center of worship. Massive white limestone buildings, accented with gold, glistened in the sunlight. The whole complex stood on top of a seven-acre raised Temple Mount platform, which Herod had expanded to make into a wonder of the Roman world.
“Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus answered. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Those hard words came true a generation later, when Jews rebelled against Roman rule. The most powerful empire on Earth, determined to teach a lesson, exacted terrible revenge: Rome destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70, crucified tens of thousands of defenders and demolished the temple the Herod family had taken 46 years to build.
What remains today of Herod’s architecture is the retaining wall made of colossal “Jerusalem limestone” blocks around the perimeter of the Temple Mount. Part of this structure became today’s Western Wall where Jews still come to pray or to grieve the destruction of God’s house. The largest dressed stone in the wall measures 11 by 16 by 44 feet and weighs a jaw-dropping 500 tons. Imagine the thousands of man-hours it took to cut and move such a block, with no power tools or diesel cranes. “What large stones,” indeed!
Building stones for the temple probably came from a quarry underneath Jerusalem. Near Damascus Gate on the north side of the Old City, a small entrance in the bedrock leads down into an astonishing network of caverns. Called Solomon’s Quarries or Zedekiah’s Cave, the limestone tunnels extend more than 600 feet under what today is the Muslim Quarter of Old Jerusalem. Chisel marks from stone removal cover walls and ceilings of the underground labyrinth.
One ballroom-size cavern is more than 300 feet wide. Folklore calls water dripping from the ceilings “Zedekiah’s tears,” since he was the last king of Judah before Babylon destroyed Solomon’s temple in 586 B.C. Babylonians “slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, then put out the eyes of Zedekiah; they bound him in fetters and took him to Babylon” (2 Kings 25:7).
Babylon (in 586 B.C.) and Rome (in A.D. 70) both destroyed the temple that seemed so secure, a reminder of the fleeting nature of religious and political structures. Today, venerable religious, social and political institutions of the Western world wobble and even collapse. God’s people have experienced worse, and God was faithful. Jewish faith survived destruction of the temple to become a Torah-based religion of the book. Christianity survived to become a global mission movement.
Peter the fisherman once said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Faith in Jesus as Lord is a foundation more sure than any temple or religious institution, no matter how large their stones.
J. Nelson Kraybill, of Elkhart, Ind., is president of Mennonite World Conference and president emeritus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. See more of his peace reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.