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JH756 SOME four hundred and fifty years—years of change and warfare—had passed since Malachi spoke the prophecy of the coming of the Lord and of one who  should prepare the way before Him, which closes the Old Testament, and the time of fulfilment was at hand.

Let us sit down on this green hill-side under the olive trees. They are friendly looking trees, with their gnarled, twisted trunks and willow-like leaves, silvery as the wind turns them up and shows the under side. In the old time there were large orchards of olives on this hill-side, and from them the hill was called the Mount of Olives. "We look down the slope into the deep Kidron valley, and across the valley are the hills on which Jerusalem stands. Imagine the city as it was in Gospel days. Beyond these nearer buildings rose the highest hill of the city, with steep rough sides, called Mount Zion. King Herod's palace stood on Mount Zion, and from the high windows he could overlook the city and the country all about. He looked down the Kidron valley into the wilderness, and over the slope of the Mount of Olives he caught a glimpse of the blue water of the Dead Sea. Around the palace there were gardens with walks and arbors and fountains, and a high wall with three great white-marble towers. Under the hill were the shops and busy streets of the city, and towards the north there were nice houses with trees and gardens about them.

One part of the city we have not mentioned, which we should have noticed first of all. In the corner of the city nearest to us stood the temple, on a hill somewhat lower than Mount Zion, which rose directly from the Kidron valley. The top of this hill was naturally small but had been enlarged to give room for the temple and its open courts. Along the steep sides of the hill, a great wall of white stone had been built, and the space within the wall had been filled partly with earth and partly with arches of masonry, supporting the marble pavement of the temple courts. Along the top of the wall ran a beautiful porch or colonnade where one could walk and look out over the gardens of the Kidron. From this level, steps led under an arched gate-way to a higher pavement and from this by another beautiful gate to one still higher, and from this to the highest ol' all where the temple building stood.

The temple itself was of white marble, its face towards the Mount of Olives and the east. Its walls were kept clean and shining. The roof, we are told, was covered with gilded points to keep the birds from lighting on it; the great gold-covered doors stood open, and in the door-way hung a curtain of rich embroidery. Above the doors the open space under the roof was filled by a gold vine, with golden leaves and grapes. The temple with all its whiteness and gold in the morning sunlight was too dazzling to look upon.

This is not the temple of Solomon which we are describing, nor the one that was built on the return from Babylon, but Herod's temple, the temple of Gospel days, which was far greater and grander than those which had been before it.

At all times of the day priests were moving about the temple courts in their white linen robes, barefooted, with turbans on their heads. As soon as the sunlight was seen on the distant hill-tops of Hebron, by the watchman on the temple roof, his trumpet gave a signal to the priests to make ready a lamb to be offered on the great altar before the temple door; and again towards evening another lamb was offered. This was a part of the priests' work. The same priests did not serve all the time. Many hundred of them lived in Jerusalem and in some of the towns about. They were divided into twenty-four courses, each course coming up twice each year for one week's service. The days of the week were then divided among the members of the course, there being fifty or more priests employed each day. And on the Sabbath the whole course was busy.

If we had looked at the hour of morning prayer, when the sunlight was glittering on the temple, or at the time of evening prayer when the shadows were lengthening from the west, we should have seen many people gathering in the temple courts; and many others in their homes were turning their faces in prayer towards the temple. The priests made ready a lamb to offer upon the altar. And now they prepared to burn the sweet incense in the temple, that its fragrant smoke might be a picture of the prayer of all the people rising to the Lord. Every priest desired to perform this holy duty of burning the incense; no priest was allowed to do it but once, and the choice was made by lot.

One day in the fall of the year when the course of Abia was on service, among the priests appointed for the day was a good old man named Zacharias from the hill country   of Judea, perhaps from the old town of Hebron where many priests lived. On this day the lot fell upon Zacharias. He should burn the incense in the temple.  The priests at the altar were waiting to offer the lamb; the people in the courts were bowing in prayer; other priests had entered the temple, one to remove the ashes from the golden altar, the other to spread fresh coals taken from the great altar before the temple door. Now, at the sound of music, Zacharias went inside the holy place. See the old priest with his long white robe, barefooted, with gray hair and beard, and a turban wound about his head, holding in his hand the golden bowl in which was the sweet gum to be scattered upon the coals before the Lord. And meantime all the people waited till he should come out from the temple and pronounce the blessing upon them.

Zacharias was in the holy place, the larger and outer room of the temple. A veil hid from him the most holy place, where the ark with the tables of the commandments should have stood, with the cherubim on its golden lid. It should have stood there, but it had long ago been lost, perhaps when the city was taken by Nebuchadnezzar and the army of Babylon. Still it was the most holy place, never entered but once each year when the high priest burned incense there before the Lord. Zacharias stood outside the veil. On his right hand was the golden table with the bread which always lay in order before the Lord; on his left was the golden "candlestick," a stand with a central stem and three branches on either side, all bearing little lamps; in the middle before the veil stood the golden altar, on which the coals were glowing for the incense. Zacharias drew near to the altar and sprinkled the sweet gum, thinking, as its fragrant smoke arose, that so the prayers of all the people were going up to the Lord. Among them was the prayer of his own heart that he might have a son. Then before he turned to go, in this holy place in the presence of the Lord, an angel stood by him and spoke in answer to his prayers.

 Listen while we read the story.

 THERE was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years. And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, According to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.

And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice a this birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season. And the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless. And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house.

Now Elisabeth's full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. And her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her. And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him. And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying,

      Blessed be the Lord God of Israel;
      for he hath visited and redeemed his people,
      And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us
      in the house of his servant David;
      As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the
      world began:
      That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;
      To perform the mercy promised to our fathers,
      and to remember his holy covenant;
      The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,
      That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies
      might serve him without fear,
      In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
      And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest:
      for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
      To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,
      Through the tender mercy of our God;
      whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
      To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
      to guide our feet into the way of peace.

And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.---Luke I. 5-23, 57-80.

Author: William L. Worcester 1904

Spiritual Correspondences

      Zacharias >> "Whom Jehovah remembers"

      Odor of incense ascending from glowing coals >> Sweet humble thoughts rising from a loving heart

      Coals for the incense taken from the undying fire of the great altar >> Pure heavenly Love received from the Lord

      Zacharias' dumbness >> Disbelief

      Tongue is loosed >> Belief and acknowledgement of the Lord's goodness

Pictures: James Tissot ----Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

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