Wayne Stiles is an author who has never recovered from his travels in Israel—and loves to write about them from his desk in Texas.
places in Jerusalem give the sense of the Second Temple period like the
Southern Steps excavations. In fact, because it is forbidden to dig on
the Temple Mount itself, this area immediately south of the mount offers
important archaeology to help unpack the history of the Temple Mount
during the first century.
Excavation of this area began in 1968
by Benjamin Mazar and continued for ten years. Since the 1990s,
archeological excavations have progressed under Ronny Reich. In fact,
the recent discovery of the First-Temple period Ophel (mentioned in 2
Chronicles 27:3; 33:14) has been opened to the public.
200-feet wide flight of stairs represents both original and restored
steps from the Second Temple period. Three times a year worshipers would
enter the Temple from these steps, after a customary cleansing in the
nearby ritual baths, or mikvot
These pilgrimages were required
by God, as written by the hand of Moses: “Three times in a year all your
males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place which He
chooses, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and
at the Feast of Booths, and they shall not appear before the Lord
empty-handed” (Deuteronomy 16:16).
Over the years, a songbook
developed that served as the pilgrims’ traveling songs. Psalms 120-134
all bear the superscription, “A Psalm of Ascents.” These are the songs
that the Jews sang as they ascended to Jerusalem every year for their
feasts. These fifteen short psalms served as the psalter for the High
Some suggest that these fifteen psalms were sung on the fifteen wide steps we see today in the Southern Steps excavations. A popular activity for tourists often includes reading each psalm—or the first verse of each psalm—on each wide step, moving up two steps to the next wide step for each successive reading.
However, the Mishna notes that these fifteen psalms were sung by the
priests who stood not on the Southern Steps, but on the fifteen steps
from the Court of the Women ascending to the Court of Israel: “On the
fifteen steps which led into the women's court, corresponding with the
fifteen songs of degrees, stood the Levites, with their musical
instruments, and sang” (see m.
At the top of the Southern Steps, at the far east of the stairway,
stands a triple gate—today closed with stones. This gate served as a
primary entrance into a subterranean tunnel that ascended into the
Temple Courts. At the far west of the broad staircase, a double gate
stood—today only a portion of this gate and its lintel can been seen.
This gate represented an exit, and the stairway below it—with their
alternating wide and narrow steps—offered a place for teaching, for
visiting, or for a simple descent.
Regardless, as we approach the High Holidays, it is appropriate to
ponder the psalms that the pilgrims of old would recite from memory. The
closest comparison my American culture offers to any national spiritual
songs would be patriotic tunes like “God Bless America,” or perhaps
better, Christmas carols. Typically sung on holidays, these songs are
familiar to all, and—as with the Psalms of Ascents—they stir up critical
reminders of basic themes in a believer’s life. Reminders of faith,
forgiveness, family, children, peace, hope, brotherhood, sacrifice, and
right attitudes toward God and people. Indeed we need to hear these
Built into the first-century Jewish culture was the necessity of
reminders and repetition—the need of rehearsing truth when the Roman
world around them countered God’s Word at every step.
What to do there:
Read the first verse of each of the Psalms of Ascents as you successively climb the fifteen wide steps to the top of the stairway. Examine the Double and Triple Gates, as well as the many mikvot
in ruins beside the steps. Be sure to visit the newly opened Ophel
How to Get There:
In Jerusalem, enter the Dung Gate and take an immediate left, following
the path around to the entrance to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park.
The Southern Steps are accessed by walking the length of the southern
wall, through the gate, and up to the left.
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