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What is the Western Wall? Why does it matter?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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AP Photo/Evan Vucci

On Monday, Donald Trump visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Wearing a black skullcap, he placed his hand on one of the most sacred sites in Judaism. He was accompanied by the Western Wall’s rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz.

Why did he visit this site? Why does the Western Wall matter today?

Let’s begin with a brief history lesson. Ten centuries before Christ, King Solomon built the first Jewish temple atop Mt. Moriah, where Abraham offered Isaac a thousand years earlier (Genesis 22:3). The temple he constructed was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Seventy years later, a second temple was constructed at the site.

When Herod the Great became king of Judah in 37 BC, he knew that his subjects would be skeptical of his authority. He ruled on behalf of the hated Romans and was only half-Jewish himself. To placate them, in 19 BC he set out to enlarge their temple into one of the most magnificent in the world.

Such a structure would need a much larger platform than currently existed on Mt. Moriah, so Herod’s builders constructed a massive retaining wall on its western side and filled in the area, effectively doubling the size of the platform. This retaining wall stands 1,601 feet long and 105 feet high and is known as the Western Wall today.

Herod then began rebuilding the temple, a stunning structure that was not completed until AD 63. Three years later, the Jews launched a rebellion against the Roman Empire. In AD 70, Titus and the Roman army destroyed their temple. However, he left the platform in place with its massive retaining wall.

Muslims believe that Muhammad visited the Temple Mount as part of his journey to heaven in AD 621. As a result, after they conquered Jerusalem in AD 638, they built the al-Aqsa Mosque at the site. It was destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt several times; the structure completed in 1035 still stands today.

In AD 691, Caliph Abd al-Malik completed construction of the famous Dome of the Rock on the site of the former Jewish temple. Muslims believe that Abraham offered Ishmael (not Isaac) to God on the “rock” it encloses.

The Crusaders converted the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque into churches. When Saladin conquered Jerusalem in 1187, they were reconverted to Muslim places of worship and have remained so ever since. In 1967, Jewish soldiers liberated the Temple Mount, reclaiming Jewish control of the area for the first time since the temple was destroyed in AD 70. However, they have allowed an Islamic religious group known as the Waqf to manage the Temple Mount.

Over the centuries, houses built against the Western Wall have obscured most of it. At least seventeen layers of the wall stand beneath the present street level. Since the Waqf does not permit non-Muslims to pray on the Temple Mount itself, the Western Wall brings Jews the closest they can come to praying at their temple.

Mr. Trump was the first sitting US president to visit the Wall. Why is this fact so significant?

The Wall and the Temple Mount it encloses are in East Jerusalem, an area claimed by Palestinians for their future capital. Previous presidents have avoided visiting the site lest they inflame turmoil in the region. As an apparent gesture to their concerns, the president did not invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to join him at the Wall. By praying there, however, he demonstrated the Wall’s historical and spiritual significance to the Jewish people and to Christians as well.

I lead a study tour to Israel each spring and have visited the Wall many times over the years. Each visit is deeply moving as I join generations of Jews and Christians who have prayed at this location. While the Wall is of enormous historical significance, here’s an even more astounding fact: if you’re a Christian, you are now the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16).

The same Spirit whose presence sanctified the temple now stands ready to sanctify you. It’s not necessary for you to visit the Western Wall to experience the presence of your Father. The King of the universe is as close as your knees.