The ruins of an ancient desert temple bear an important message for us today!
The first view of the ruined city is unforgettable. As you approach the ancient site, the narrow road begins to curve around low hills. Soon, a final turn — and there it is! You suddenly look down on a spectacular array of pillars and walls stretching away across the desert — the ruins of fabled Palmyra. What a city this must have been! As you survey the extensive ruins basking in the burning desert sun, the imagination seeks to reconstruct the wealthy oasis city of ancient times: the colonnaded streets, richly decorated houses, spacious courtyards, bustling marketplaces. For centuries, travelers gladly risked death in the sun-scorched, bandit-ridden wilderness just for a glimpse of these remarkable, out-of-the-way ruins. Magnificent though they are, these time-scarred remains are but a pale reflection of the city's former grandeur. Palmyra — the legendary " Bride of the Desert" — once stood on an ancient trade route halfway between the Syrian coast and the Euphrates valley. A rich culture flourished within its walls. Its trade reached international proportions. Camel caravans brought goods from faraway India, Egypt and Rome. Today, the site is an expanse long empty of human habitation, echoing only faintly the ancient fame, wealth and glamour of the city. Palmyra sits alone, desolate and forlorn, in the center of the modern country of Syria. It is separated from its nearest important neighbor by more than 100 miles of desert.
The original name of Palmyra was Tadmor. The name Tadmor appears for the first time in Assyrian inscriptions of the reign of Tiglath-pileser I (1115-1077 B.C.). Later, the Greeks and Romans renamed the oasis city Palmyra, "the place of palms." The first known inhabitants of the city were Canaanites. Later came Aramaeans, who subsequently mixed with Arab stock. With the collapse of the Nabataean treasure city of Petra early in the second century A.D., Palmyra became the chief commercial center in northern Arabia. The city's golden age came under its queen, Zenobia. She briefly liberated her city from Roman rule, but was defeated by the Roman emperor Aurelian and taken captive to Rome in A.D. 272. After another revolt the following year, the city of palms was recaptured and destroyed by Roman legions. Among the surviving remains of ancient Palmyra is its temple of Baal. The god Baal was worshiped by many ancient Near Eastern peoples. Baal is the Canaanite word for "master" or "lord." The plural form of the word Baal — Baalim — is often used to refer to idols or gods collectively. The Hebrews learned the worship of Baal from the Canaanites. The Old Testament abounds in references to Baal worship. Judges 2:11, for example, records that "the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served the Baals." The judge Gideon, by contrast, threw down the altar of Baal (Judg. 6). The wicked queen Jezebel introduced Baal worship on a grand scale at Ahab's court. The dramatic confrontation between Elijah and her priests of Baal is recorded in I Kings 18. It was there that Elijah issued the challenge, "If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him" (verse 21). But Baal worship persisted. Jeremiah later condemned the people of Judah for burning their sons with fire for burnt offerings to Baal (Jer. 19:5).
The temple of Baal
In ancient Palmyra, Baal was worshiped as Baal-Shamin, "Lord of the Heavens." He was the equivalent of the Greek god Zeus. (The city also had a temple to Bel, patron god of Babylon.) The temple of Baal in Palmyra was laid out during the time of Rome's emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14 to 37), but actual construction did not occur until many decades later. It was built about 350 yards north of the city's amphitheater. In its heyday, Palmyra's temple of Baal was a magnificent structure. Even today, archaeologists agree that the temple is one of the most attractive and best preserved of all the monuments of the city. As a center of the worship of Baal, it was renowned far and wide. The temple has a portico of six columns. An inscription on one of the pillars states that the temple was built "to the honor of Baal Shamin, Lord of Heaven and God of Fertility and of Storms and Rains." In front of the portico stands the altar (see photos). The hidden inner part of the temple housed the image of the deity. This innermost sanctuary was open only to priests of Baal. One can mentally picture the priests attending to their various duties: burning incense, sacrificing at the altar, bowing in prayer before the shrine and teaching disciples the ways of the mystery religion. The cult of Baal was extremely popular. Its rituals included animal sacrifices, "sacred" prostitution and licentious dancing.
Symbol of false religion
Today, the temple of Baal lies abandoned and in ruins, as do temples of Baal throughout the Near East. No priests sacrifice on their altars, pray in their sanctuaries or instruct disciples. But there is still a great lesson to be learned at the temple of Baal! The temple of Baal at Palmyra symbolizes the ultimate fate of all false religion. This once-thriving temple, like the religion it served, today lies desolate and in ruins. Her antique splendor has faded with the centuries. Her pillars are eroded by the ravages of time. Her courtyards lie in disarray. The ruins stand as mute testimony to the worthlessness and vanity of idol worship. Like the desert surrounding the temple, the worship of Baal has proven barren and fruitless. Like ancient Babylon, birthplace of false religion, the temple has become the haunt of stray dogs and desert reptiles (compare Isaiah 13:19-22). Even the sign that today points the way to the temple is worn, scarred and defaced, like the stones of the temple itself. Perhaps most significant, entrance to the inner shrine of the temple is today prevented by a strong door and large iron lock. One may look through the barred door, but may not enter. The way to false worship is obstructed, symbolizing the soon-coming time when the whole world will do what Israel did in the days of Samuel — they "put away the Baals... and served the Lord only" (I Sam. 7:4). The locked temple of Baal also foreshadows the fate of Satan, the father of false religion, who himself will soon be bound by lock and key (Rev. 20:1-3). The temple of Baal sits desolate, in the emptiness of the desert, a strong testimony to the utter futility of false religion.
New Temple under construction
The decaying temple of Baal stands in stark contrast to a different Temple, a Temple under construction even as you read these lines! This new Temple will never decay and fall to ruins. It is being constructed of carefully chosen materials and engineered with unerring precision. That Temple is God's true Church. God is today preparing a chosen people who will constitute the spiritual Temple to which Jesus Christ shall return in power and glory! This Temple — the Church of God — shall be more glorious than even the illustrious Temple of Solomon (Hag. 2:9). The foundation for this Temple was laid millennia ago. Jesus Christ Himself is the living Head and chief cornerstone — the main foundation. His apostles, along with the prophets of old, form the remainder of the foundation (Eph.2:19-20). Each individual Christian, begotten with the Spirit of God, is a building block of this new Temple. A Christian's body is, in itself, a temple of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 3:16-17,6:19). Taken together, these building blocks members of the Church of God — form the superstructure of the spiritual Temple. "You are God's building," the apostle Paul told the Corinthian church (I Cor. 3:9). In II Corinthians 6:16 he repeated, "You are the temple of the living God." In this new holy Temple, all parts will be "fitly framed together" (Eph. 2:21, Authorized Version) — properly joined and functioning together in harmony. There will be no structural weaknesses to ever threaten its collapse.
Moreover, in a special message to Christians of the end-time Philadelphia era of God's Church, Jesus Christ declares, "He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God" (Rev. 3:12). These pillars will never crumble or decay. Even now, in these latter days, God is completing the construction of His spiritual Temple. In the days of Elijah, there was a small group of people "whose knees have not bowed to Baal" (I Kings 19:18, Rom. 11:4). "Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace" (Rom. 11:5). These undefiled people — the people of God's Church — are the stones with which God is building His Temple. The gentiles of old sacrificed to demons (I Cor. 10:20). By contrast, Christians today must themselves be living sacrifices to the true God (Rom. 12:1). If we sacrifice now for God's great end-time Work, and overcome, we will very soon take our places as pillars in a Temple that will never waste away!