Having been introduced to King Solomon in last week's reading, we meet him now eleven years later, as he finishes the work for which he is perhaps best remembered:
building of the Temple in Jerusalem. Our text for today is Solomon's prayer at the Temple's dedication.
The previous chapters in 1 Kings speak of the seven years of the Temple's construction. Solomon uses the finest of building materials: the cedars of Lebanon, cypress wood, gold, silver, bronze, and huge blocks of cut and dressed stone. He has master craftsmen carve into the walls of the Temple elaborate decorations of cherubim, palm trees, and flowers. He overlays everything--even the floor--with gold. It is a magnificent building, inside and out.
When all is ready, Solomon brings up the Ark of the Covenant, which has been residing in the Tabernacle, and installs it in the newly finished Temple, in the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, under the wings of the cherubim, carved of olivewood and covered with gold. As soon as the priests put the Ark in its place, a cloud fills the Temple and the glory of the LORD inhabits it.
This cloud that descends on the Temple is a sign of the presence of the LORD. It is the same cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt and protected them from the Egyptian army (Exodus 14:19-25). It is the cloud that descended on the top of Mount Sinai when God made a covenant with the Israelites and gave them the Law as a gift (Exodus 24:15-18). This same cloud settled on the Tabernacle, that movable sanctuary, by which the LORD was present with the chosen people throughout their wilderness wanderings (Exodus 40:34-38).
The cloud of God's presence is not the only explicit connection between this text and the Exodus. The Exodus from Egypt and the Sinai covenant are mentioned six times in this chapter alone (1 Kings 8:9, 16, 21, 51, 53, 56). Just as the LORD was present with those early Israelites some five hundred years before (1 Kings 6:1), he is present now with their descendants, in the Temple that Solomon built.
There is continuity here--the same God who brought Israel out of Egypt now dwells with them in their land. But there is also a significant shift in worldview. The Israelites are no longer wandering nomads in the Sinai Peninsula. They are established now in their own land, the land that God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are a nation in their own right, with a glorious and wise king. The covenant at Sinai is still in force, but Solomon speaks also of another covenant in his prayer--the covenant God made with David, his father, to establish David's line forever (1 Kings 8:23-26). And perhaps most significantly, from now on the LORD will be associated not with Mount Sinai, but with Mount Zion, the Temple Mount.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of the Temple (and therefore Jerusalem/Zion) in Israelite/Jewish theology. To cite just one of a myriad of examples, Psalm 137 gives voice to the longing of the exiles in Babylon for Jerusalem:
By the rivers of Babylon-- there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalm 137:1, 5-6)
The Talmud instructs Jews to recite this last verse to a bridegroom at his wedding, as he waits for his bride to arrive, so that he will remember that there is no greater joy than the joy one should feel over Jerusalem.1
In Solomon's prayer, Jerusalem is "the city that you [God] have chosen" (1 Kings 8:44). The Temple is the place of which God says, "My name shall be there" (1 Kings 8:29). It is the place where heaven meets earth and where God's glory appears (Isaiah 6:1-3). The Temple dedicated in our text for today, the Temple Solomon built, lives in the Israelite and Jewish imagination long after it is destroyed by the Babylonians; long after its replacement, the Second Temple, is destroyed by the Romans. The longing for the Temple, and for the city in which it stood, is the reason that the Passover meal traditionally ends with the words, "Next year in Jerusalem." It is the reason that the Western Wall (the remaining wall of the Temple Mount that is closest to the site of the Temple) is Judaism's holiest site.
What is a preacher to do with this text? The Temple, and Jerusalem, do not hold the same importance for Christians as they do for Jews. Nevertheless, it may be fruitful to explore the history and significance of the Temple in a sermon and remind one's congregation of the relationship between God and Israel and the ongoing faith of our Jewish brothers and sisters.
This text also lends itself to speaking about how God is present with God's people throughout Scripture--in cloud, in fire, at Mount Sinai, in the Tabernacle, in the Temple, and (most fully) in Emmanuel, God-with-us. God remains faithful to God's people, both Jews and Christians, through the centuries.
Given this text's focus on the Temple, it is also important to note that Solomon's prayer does not confine God to the Temple. In 1 Kings 8:27, Solomon acknowledges that this "house" cannot contain God; and in several verses he speaks of God's "dwelling place" being in "heaven," from where God can hear prayers and act in mercy towards those who pray (1 Kings 8:30-49). Although the Temple is central to Israel's worship for many centuries, it is not essential. When it is destroyed (twice!), God is still present with and attentive to God's people.
Finally, it is important to note that we who are Gentiles are also in this text. In verses 41-43, Solomon speaks of the "foreigner" who will pray "towards this house." He asks God to heed the prayer of (even) that foreigner "so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel" (8:43). We Gentiles are included in God's mercy and have access to God even at this early stage of Israel's history. Such inclusion is reason for thanksgiving and humility.
God is present with God's people. God hears prayer and will respond with mercy. Such is the Gospel in this text. The Temple is a sign and a means of that communion with God, and thus deserves to be remembered with honor in both synagogue and church. This text gives us opportunity to remember our ancestors in faith and to give thanks for the mercy of God that includes us, too--the wild olive branches grafted into the root of Israel (Romans 11:11-24).
1James Limburg, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), p. 467.