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.
Upon the day when the lot had fallen upon Zacharias to offer incense we can follow him as, attired in his white linen garments, with a mitre (somewhat resembling a turban) upon his head, he ascends the steps leading to the great Temple building. The assembled multitudes in the courts below see him, a white figure outlined against the dark background of the Holy Place, as the two great doors covered with gold are slowly swung back. Every head in those silent multitudes is bowed, and all inwardly pray to God, that, as the smoke of incense rises upward from off the altar, their prayers, too, may rise acceptable to God. The most honorable, and yet most awful moment in the life of Zacharias had come: only a woven veil separated him from the Holy of Holies, where in times past, God has shown his presence by a cloud rising from the mercy seat covering the ark. The gloom of the great space is dimly lighted by the ever burning lamps of the golden candlestick and the glow of the altar fire.
He pours the incense on the glowing charcoal; the clouds of fragrant smoke ascend, filling the Holy Place.
What is that! There is something more than smoke before his eyes. As silently as the smoke has arisen, so silently has a figure appeared at the right-hand side of the altar. It is the figure of an angel. But the silence of the Holy Place is still unbroken, the deathly silence as of a tomb. Zacharias, full of emotion before, is troubled and fearful. Has he sinned? Is the angel about to slay him? Such thoughts may well have passed through his mind at such a moment, though there was little need for them, for both Zacharias and his wife “were righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.”
Then a voice breaks the oppressive silence. The angel speaks. “Fear not, Zacharias, for thy prayer is heard; thou shalt have son, and thou shalt call his name, John.
Excerpt from The Life of Jesus Christ by W.R. Mitchell