Commentary on 1 Kings 5:1-5, 12-13; 8:1-6, 27-30
It was common in the ancient Near East for kings (in imitation of the gods in the mythic tradition) to erect a temple early in their reign, and for very good reasons.
Politically speaking, building a temple following the events that led to the king’s investiture drew attention to those successful, often military exploits and established royal authority. Religiously speaking, temples were dedicated to the glory of the king’s patron deity, thereby securing continued divine patronage and enhancing royal prestige.
Early in his reign, David had tried to build a temple as a permanent house for the ark (2 Samuel 7:1-17). God had not allowed this, and David had to be content with securing a site (2 Samuel 24:18-25) and amassing huge amounts of materials for the Temple’s future construction and furnishing. The actual construction of the Temple, however, was left to Solomon, David’s son.
First Kings 3-11 recount the story of Solomon from his succession to his tragic apostasy. These days Solomon’s actual existence is contested; but even those holding a minimalist position agree that 1 Kings 8, Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, is the focal point of the story of his reign. This pivotal chapter is densely packed with conflicting theological opinions concerning divine presence complete with flashbacks in the tradition(s).
Virtually all commentators recognize the concentric architecture of chapter 8 that has brought literary order out of the jumble of traditions and theological voices clamoring for a hearing. The following diagram will fill in some of the blanks skipped over in the lectionary reading and show the relative position and importance of the selected passages:
Gathering of people verses 1-2
Sacrifice and transfer of ark verses 3-13
Blessing verses 14-21
Prayer verses 22-53
Blessing verses 54-61
Sacrifice and dedication of Temple verses 62-64
Dismissal of people verses 65-66
As the diagram shows, Solomon’s prayer stands at the center of the Temple dedication liturgy (which, in turn, lies at the heart of the presentation of his reign in chapters 3-11). The selected verses (8:12-13, 27-30) suggest a discussion of those conflicting theological positions regarding how God is present noted above.
Verses 1-13 are essentially the established priestly theology familiar from the book of Exodus (e.g. 24:15-18; 40:34-38).
Here, Yahweh is present to Israel in association with the ark of the covenant, the tabernacle or tent-shrine that houses the divine “glory” dwelling (“tabernacling” 24:16; 40:35) among the people and accompanied by the “cloud” (cf. verses 10-11).
Presence is conceived as divine immanence, God among us, here and now, in this place. Such an institutional view of God’s presence is comforting and supportive of the status quo, but naturally, requires a trained priesthood to handle the multitude of restrictions and requirements that such a view demands.
The ancient doxology in verses 12-13 forms a fitting capstone to the priestly view of God’s immanent presence. In poetic form the doxology proclaims the eternal (“forever”) presence of God and suggests that God will always be there and be for the Israel.
Verses 27-30 present a differing view of God’s presence. It springs from the Deuteronomistic tradition lying behind the books of Joshua through Kings which came together during the Babylonian exile. For people apparently abandoned by God, cooling their heels in what is now Iraq, bereft of monarchy, Temple, and homeland the supremely confident expressions of God’s eternal presence as related in the first 13 verses of the chapter were incomprehensible; they were simply contrary to their personal experience.
Instead, the Deuteronomistic voice rhetorically asks, “will God indeed dwell on the earth?” (verse 27). In Hebrew, such rhetorical questions are a way of making strong assertions, as in the NET translation: “God does not really live on the earth! Look, if the sky and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this temple I have built!” thus challenging the priestly insistence on God’s immanence and implied support.
Both voices employ a cloud that shrouds the Tabernacle and the Temple to symbolize God’s presence. The Deuteronomistic voice, however, insists that no earthly shrine can contain God. If the priestly tabernacle voice emphasizes God’s immanence, the Deuteronomistic voice stresses God’s transcendence. God cannot be kept in a box!
But what, then, is the purpose of the Temple, if not God’s dwelling place? Both Third Isaiah and Jesus provide an answer that supports the rest of Solomon’s prayer: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” Isaiah 56:7; Mark 11:17). They, too, were aware of the time-conditioned nature of the priestly theology.
One doesn’t come to the Temple to meet God, God can be encountered anywhere in creation. One comes to the Temple to pray, worship, and experience God’s gracious forgiveness. As the following petitions make clear, that forgiveness stresses the importance of repentance. The Temple is the place where God always stands ready to forgive the repentant.
Some would have us choose between these conflicting portrayals of God’s divine presence. Perhaps we should see in the orderly presentation of chapter 8 a suggestion that we can have it both ways, that it would be wrong to limit God to either of these supposedly exclusive positions. Fretheim puts it nicely:
… no place (even heaven) can be considered the place where God dwells. God dwells both in heaven and in the temple (see Psalm 11:4 …) While God’s people can lay claim to the promises that God will hear, God’s specific responses are not under the control of those who pray. God will answer because God is gracious.1
As Israel’s situation changed, so did their apprehension of who (and where?) God is. As must ours.
1T. E. Fretheim, First and Second Kings (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), p. 49.