Tisha B’Av – Mourning the destruction of the Temple | Zechariah 11

According to a Jewish Lexicon Tisha b’Av (9th day of the fifth month in the Hebrew calendar), which commemorates the destruction of both the first and second Temple, is the most melancholy day in the Jewish calendar1. The Babylonians, under Nebuchadnezzar, destroyed the first temple on 9th of Av 586 BC and, by Divine providence, the Romans destroyed the second temple on the same date in 70AD. Since the destruction of the second temple, Tisha B’Av has also been associated with the many experiences of persecution that have befallen the Jews in the diaspora.

When the Jews returned from Babylon after seventy years of exile they encountered strenuous opposition to the rebuilding of the temple from the surrounding peoples and were tempted to abandon the task in favour of rebuilding their own homes. Zechariah was one of the prophets whom the Lord called to encourage the people. His prophecies begin with a strong exhortation to the returning exiles to listen to, and obey, the word of the LORD so that they would not fall into the same trap as their forefathers – which led to the destruction of the temple and exile of the people in the first place. Yet, in the same book, Zechariah prophesied the destruction of the temple and the absolute devastation that would come upon the people of Jerusalem for once again failing to listen to the word of the LORD:

‘Open your doors, O Lebanon, so that fire may devour your cedars! Wail, O pine tree, for the cedar has fallen; the stately trees are ruined! Wail, oaks of Bashan; the dense forest has been cut down! Listen to the wail of the shepherds; their rich pastures are destroyed! Listen to the roar of the lions; the lush thicket of the Jordan is ruined!’ (Zechariah 11:1-3).

Isaiah, too, prophesied judgement against those who refused to listen to the word of the LORD:

“… when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, no one listened. They did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me.” Hear the word of the LORD, you who tremble at his word: “Your brothers who hate you, and exclude you because of my name, have said, ‘Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy!’ Yet they will be put to shame. Hear that uproar from the city, hear that noise from the temple! It is the sound of the LORD repaying his enemies all they deserve (Isaiah 66:3-6).

Although this was primarily a reference to the destruction of the first temple, the calamity that would result from Israel’s unbelief, and particularly from the rejection of the Messiah, was again prophesied in Zechariah chapter 11. The destruction of the second temple is directly linked to the unbelief that culminates in the rejection of the divinely appointed shepherd. This same passage contains the well known prophecy of the betrayal of the Messiah for 30 pieces of silver – a gesture of utter contempt, being the price set for a slave. Remarkably, Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235) regarded this passage as Messianic.2

The language of Zechariah’s prophecy seems to be deliberately ambiguous, as the language of Scripture frequently is, because it is hidden from the proud and arrogant. When Jesus spoke to the people in parables it was for this same reason. The cedars of Lebanon were a metaphor for the proud and lofty which were destined to be cut down with the revelation of the Messiah. They were associated with the temple which was a symbol of the pride of the nation:

‘The LORD Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted (and they will be humbled), for all the cedars of Lebanon, tall and lofty, and all the oaks of Bashan, for all the towering mountains and all the high hills, for every lofty tower and every fortified wall, for every trading ship and every stately vessel’ (Isaiah 2:12-16).

The Soncino commentary indicates that the Sages knew that this prophecy (Zech. 11:1) was a veiled prediction of the destruction of the second temple:

“In the Talmud, this prophecy is interpreted with reference to the destruction of the Second temple which was constructed, like the First, largely of the cedars of Lebanon. ‘Forty years before the destruction of the Temple …the doors of the Temple used to open of their own accord, until Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai rebuked them saying, “O Sanctuary, Sanctuary! Why dost thou terrify thyself? I know well that thine end is to be destroyed, for Zechariah the son of Iddo prophesied against thee long since: Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars”’ (Yoma 39b).3

The rebuilding of the temple during the time of Zechariah was important in as much as it contained within its ancient rites and symbols the mystery of the coming Messiah, but the temple, the priesthood and the sacrifices were merely a shadow of greater things to come (cf. Zech. 3:8 & Heb. 9:23-26). Daniel was also told that the temple would again be destroyed once it had served its purpose in ushering in the age of the Messiah through the new covenant that the LORD had promised (cf. Dan. 9:24-27, Jer. 31:31-34). This leads us to the inescapable conclusion that the Messiah had to have come before the second temple was destroyed.

Although the LORD sent prophets to encourage the returning exiles to persevere in their efforts to rebuild the temple, the Shekhinah, representing God’s presence, never returned to the temple. However, even before the exile, Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would be called Immanuel, which literally means, God with us (Isaiah 7:14). God’s presence would only return to Israel in the Messiah. However, the LORD also said that “he will be a sanctuary (temple) but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare” (Isaiah 8:14).

How would the LORD Almighty be both a sanctuary and a trap and a snare for the people of Jerusalem? Simeon prophesied over the infant Jesus when he was brought to the temple to be consecrated to the LORD: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). Jesus was destined to cause a great divide between the people of Israel – he would either be their sanctuary or he would be a stone that caused them to stumble and a rock that made them fall. His word would expose the true condition of their hearts and their final rejection of him would culminate in the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem and the scattering of the people once again.

The temple had become a symbol of immense pride for the Jews. The New Testament records that even the Lord’s disciples were struck with awe at the magnificent edifice. However, the Lord’s own judgement was that it had become a den of thieves. Both the temple and the priesthood had become utterly corrupt, representing human pride and ambition rather than God’s glory. The LORD had condescended to the building of Solomon’s temple as the symbolic place of meeting between God and his people, but he said, “heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?” (Isa. 66:1-2). In the book of Acts, Stephen, recounting the history of Israel, reminded them: “…it was Solomon who built the dwelling place for the God of Jacob. However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men” (Acts 7:47-48).

When Jesus drove out the traders from the temple courts as a symbolic act of cleansing the Jews demanded to know, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” He answered them, Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.” The Jews replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body (John 2:18-21).

Jesus is himself the true temple of God. He replaced the earthly temple in Jerusalem as the place of meeting with God and the glory of God returned to Israel in him: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Because they failed to perceive this, Jesus warned them: “They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Luke 19:45).

Spurgeon notes; “Nothing remained for the King but to pronounce the solemn sentence of death upon those who would not come unto him that they might have life: ‘Behold, your house is left unto you desolate’4

He also warned his disciples not to take refuge in the city or the temple, but to flee the city as soon as they saw the Roman armies approaching (Lk. 21:20-24). He was indeed a sanctuary for those who listened to his word and escaped the tribulation of those days, but those who failed to listen were caught in a trap. More than a million Jews perished in the siege that has been described as, “more terrible than anything that the world has ever witnessed, either before or since. Even Titus seemed to see in his cruel work the hand of an avenging God.”5  Many Jews were convinced that God would protect them if they took refuge in the temple compound, but their “faith” was misplaced. The very thing that they put their faith in became a trap and a snare to them.

Zechariah 11:9 prophesies the harsh judgement against the flock: “… that which dieth, let it die; and that which is to be cut off, let it be cut off; and let them that are left eat every one the flesh of another.” The Soncino comments – “this refers to that which strays from the flock.” In other words, they perished because they strayed from under the protection of the Shepherd whom God had appointed. Those who took refuge in the city and the temple rather than in the Good Shepherd fell prey to the enemy and perished in the most appalling circumstances. So dreadful was the siege that Josephus records an incident of a mother eating her own infant to survive. Because they rejected the Good Shepherd they were handed over to the false shepherds of whom the LORD said, “Pasture the flock marked for slaughter…their own shepherds do not spare them” (Zech. 11:4).

The Lord pronounced judgement on the false shepherds: “Woe to the worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock! May the sword strike his arm and his right eye! May his arm be completely withered, his right eye totally blinded!” (Zecheriah 11:17).

Jesus echoes these words in his denunciation of the false teachers of Israel:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. … Woe to you, blind guides!” (Matthew 23:13-16).

Jesus said,

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:11-13).

To those who still mourn the destruction of the temple on Tisha b’Av Jesus remains “the stone that causes them to stumble”. They stumble because they do not believe that he is the sanctuary for his people. While the earthly temple stood it signified that the way into God’s holy presence had not yet been disclosed (Heb. 9:8). It presented an obstacle to those who would worship in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:23) and a barrier to the Gentiles coming to faith in the only true God. With this in mind we do not lament its destruction, but rather rejoice that its destruction signifies that the way into God’s presence has been opened through Jesus Christ. In him we are being built together into a holy temple in which God lives by his Spirit (Eph. 2:22). What the temple foreshadowed has been realised in the Church, of which Christ is the head.

Recalling the solemn warning of Zechariah in the opening passages of his book not to repeat the mistakes of their forefathers who failed to listen or pay attention to the word of the LORD, we can but urge the reader: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12).

Jesus said:

“It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life” (John 6:45-47).

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart” (Heb. 3:15).


1. Judaism A-Z Illustrated – Lexicon of Concepts and Terms p. 263
2. The Soncino Books of the Bible – The Twelve prophets p. 314
3. Jesus Christ was crucified forty years before the destruction of the temple thereby putting an end to the animal sacrifices which were once required by the Law of Moses and thereby also making the earthly temple and Levitical priesthood obsolete.
4. Spurgeon – Commentary on Matthew, p. 412.
5. ibid.