The beautiful Temple which had been built for the Jewish nation by Herod was the wonder and admiration of all. Even the Romans, who, in their own country and cities, lived amidst beautiful and impressive buildings, added their tribute to its praise. It was built upon the hill called Mount Moriah, where hundreds of years before, Abraham had gone to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. This hill being too narrow to contain the outer courts of the Temple, it had been enlarged by the building of huge walls from the valley below to a height equal to that of the height of the mount, the space between the wall and the hill being either filled in or used for underground chambers. Thus a large platform was made. Upon this platform, high walls in the form of a square, and pierced at intervals with gates, enclosed the courts of the Temple. Some writers say this square was 600 feet along its side, whilst others say 900. If we take the smaller number only we have a huge square three times as wide and twice as long as the area covered by a football ground. Inside this surrounding wall, on three sides, was a large covered walk called a porch, the roof of which was supported by three rows of marble pillars, whilst on the fourth side (the south side) the space covered was wider, four rows of pillars being used. This side was called the Royal Porch, and is said to have been longer and higher than York Cathedral. But these were only the outer buildings, and merely enclosed the Court of the Gentiles. As its name implies, peoples of all nations could pass into this court, and at certain times, especially before the great Jewish feasts, stalls for oxen and sheep were set up, cages holding doves and tables, whereat money-changers sat, were brought in, until the scene resembled a market more than the outer courts of a Temple of God. Then came the Courts of the Temple proper. A wall, also pierced with openings, separated them from the Court of the Gentiles, and steps led up to another surrounding porch through which the women could pass to the Women`s Court, the men to the Men’s Court, which was raised above that of the women, and the priests to the Priests’ Court, which was still further raised. Then above all was the Temple itself, a building rendered as magnificent as possible by its front being covered with plates of gold, so that when the morning sun shone upon it, its dazzling brightness was almost overpowering.
The services in the Temple were conducted by twenty-four courses of priests, which had been first ordained about a thousand years before by David. The priests comprising each course had to go up to Jerusalem twice a year to minister. At the time of which we are speaking the course of Abia was serving.
We cannot stay to go into all the varied duties which the priests had to perform in the Temple, but of all those duties, that of the daily offering of incense was so honourable that no one was allowed to perform the duty twice. It was determined by lot who should offer, and the lot had fallen upon the aged priest Zacharias. He was a descendant of Aaron, and could boast a genealogy going back fifteen centuries. Elisabeth, his aged wife, was also of the priestly line, for she too was descended from Aaron. When the time came for Zacharias to fulfil his course of duty at the Temple he left his wife behind in the hill country of Judea. We can imagine how lonely she would be, for she had no son or daughter to bear her company, and cheer her with their companionship. This was a cause of sorrow to both Elisabeth and Zacharias.
Excerpt from The Life of Jesus Christ by W.R. Mitchell