Palestine Calling
by
W. M. Christie

Chapter XVI

The Fifteen Steps


In the Temple in Jerusalem, on the western side of the Women's Court, there were fifteen steps that led up to the Gate of Nicanor, and thence into the narrow Court of Israel, properly so-called. These steps played an important part in Israel's history, and the incidents associated with them give us something of light and leading.

Now we have a series of fifteen Psalms (120-134) called Psalms of Degrees, or upgoings, or steps, and Jewish Talmudic history tells us that the Levites kept their musical instruments in two rooms on either side of these steps, and that especially at the feasts, they stood on these steps and sang these Psalms with instrumental accompaniment. Their connection with the feasts also gave them the name of "The Pilgrim Psalms," and they may very well have been sung by the Israelites on their journeys to the Holy City. It is significant that the last word of the Hebrew Bible (2 Chron. 36:23), "let us go up," is from the same root, and in Ezra 7:9, the same word in the singular is used for the "upgoing from Babylon." Thus in both senses we accept them as "Songs of Ascents."

Then in 2 Kings 20:11, and Isaiah 38:8, the same word occurs, and it has generally been translated "degrees," on the supposition that they were of the nature of the modern markings on a "sundial," though no ancient sundial has been found in Palestine, and no trace has been found of such a time-measurer in old Israel. Our own opinion is that we have here the same fifteen steps. The sun had been gradually sinking in the west during the afternoon, and the shadow of the cross-bar of the gateway (later called "The Gate of Nicanor") had gradually crept down the steps, but by Divine intervention, natural or supernatural, according to the prophet's word, it crept back again, up the whole space of the fifteen steps. And strange to say, we have the knowledge of an eclipse, which took place on the 26th of May, 715 B.C., between 6 and 7 p.m., and this fits in exactly to the chronology of Hezekiah's life. But even if the sign were given through natural means--refraction or reflection--we by no means brush aside the supernatural, for here as in other Bible incidents, we have given beforehand an intimation that no one could then reckon or anticipate. It may be of interest to recount that, in our early Palestine days, when cut off from the outside world, we were induced by this same incident, to devise a "mid-day line," and that through this we regularised our day, and were enabled to give "time guidance" even to the mosque authorities, on the hours of prayer.

And in New Testament times we have to recount that the presentation of the Child Jesus took place (Luke 2:22 seq.) on these same steps. It was there that such ceremonial was carried through and blessing given. Now, think of those who received and blessed the Lord Jesus that day. There was Simeon, of the tribe of Judah, representing the Southern Kingdom; Anna, of the tribe of Asher, representing the Northern; and the priest of the Sons of Aaron--representatively "all Israel." Thus far there was a reception of the Lord Jesus long before the great rejection.

More than thirty years later He was there again on the 19th of October, 29 A.D. (22nd of Tishri), on the last, the great day of the Feast of Tabernacles. The hot summer days were just drawing to a close. There was a universal thirst, the very skin was feeling dry and likely to crack, and men had been praying for rain. Then during the past seven days there had been "the joy of the water-drawing." This meant that priests and people had gone in procession to the Spring of Siloam, and drawing water thence, had returned to the Temple, where the water mingled with wine had been poured over and around the altar, tempering the atmosphere, and, through evaporation, producing a feeling of comfort and satisfaction. But on the eighth day this ceremonial had no place, and so, after past experiences, there was, intensively, a felt need. It was at this moment, standing by these steps, that Christ presented Himself with the words: "If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink." Where there is a need felt, He can step in; and very often He goes even further, and helps to the creation of that feeling of need, as He did in the case of the Samaritan woman.

Some six months later we have another interesting incident connected with this same Court, or, as it was also called, "The Treasury." On Wednesday, the 5th of April, 30 A.D., we learn that "He sat" there. Around three sides of the court there were thirteen collecting boxes, called "trumpets," into which offerings had to be cast. Pompous Pharisees were there, rattling their coin, and out of their abundance sounding the trumpets (Matt. 6:2). It was there that He saw and commended the poor widow, who cast in her two mites (Mark 21 [sic; 12]:41-44; Luke 21:1-4).

But there is one word in the narrative that immediately arrests our attention, "Jesus sat." Now this court, along with the adjoining narrow Court of Israel, formed the "Azarah," and we are told in Jewish writings (B. Yoma. 25a, etc.) that no one was allowed to sit in the Azarah except the kings of the House of David. We cannot find any trace of benches or seats having existed in that court, so He must have sat on these steps, already associated with His life and ministry. Forty-two hours before His rejection in the adjoining Tower of Antonia, and before Pilate's Declaration that He was "King of the Jews," He had taken His seat as "the King of the House of David" in the Temple itself, and it must be remembered there were still in the Temple archives the document that could have proved His claim (B. Yeb. 49 b; Pes. 62 b). The people at least seem to have accepted the situation that day without question.

We close with another incident related of the Gate of Nicanor, at the top of these fifteen steps, which could only be opened and closed by the united effort of twenty men. We read (B. Yoma 39 b) that on the Day of Atonement, "forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the gates were swinging open of their own accord, till Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai rebuked them, saying, 'Oh, Temple, oh, Temple, what seekest thou? I know that thy end is to be destroyed, and already Zechariah, the son of Iddo, prophesied against thee. Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars.'" Other strange and terrifying things took place that day, one of which was that the red ribbon bound around the horns of the scape-goat, instead of becoming white, when it was driven out, became a deeper red, to the consternation of priests and people, who associated the change with Isaiah 1:18: "though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow." All this significantly occurred on the first Day of Atonement after the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

This Rabbi Jochanan is, we have no doubt, the John of Acts 4:6. It was he that, after the Fall of Jerusalem, in 70 A.D., gathered the surviving chiefs of Judaism together, and restored the Sanhedrin at Jamnia, in the Plain of Sharon, where Rabbinical Judaism was consolidated, and a great amount of the older literature collected and passed on to coming generations.

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