At the height of Israel’s success as a monarchy, King Solomon stops and prays.

October 28, 2012

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Commentary on 1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:27-30, 41-43

At the height of Israel’s success as a monarchy, King Solomon stops and prays.

After David declares his intention to build a temple for God, he is rebuked and redirected to a new vision of a house. Now, Solomon ascends to the Israelite kingship. With the changing of the guard, Solomon recalls the earlier promise to David and makes arrangements to build a magnificent temple (1 Kings 5:1-5).

At the completion of the temple, Solomon gives his prayer of dedication. Scholars have long recognized 1 Kings 8 as a “chapter of reflection,” one of the crucial chapters in the narrative of Israel’s history from Deuteronomy through 2 Kings. (Other chapters of reflection include Deuteronomy 1-4; Joshua 1, 23; Judges 2; 1 Samuel 12; 2 Kings 17).

These chapters of reflection occur at pivotal moments throughout the grand narrative of ancient Israel. Together, they hold together the vast history from the wilderness through the settlement and partition of land, to the end of the Davidic monarchy. At these junctures, the Bible momentarily halts the action in order to reflect on past events. But such reflection is never merely nostalgic. The lessons of experience must guide and exhort the present generation to remain faithful to the Lord through new challenges.

The building of the temple in Jerusalem certainly qualifies 1 Kings 8 as a watershed moment in Israel’s history. After the bloody expansionist wars of David, the borders stand secure. The nation is unified, and the Solomon rules as the second monarch of a historically astonishing four centuries of rule. Most significantly, the completion of the great temple provides a lasting place of prayer and sacrifice.

After much planning and execution, the temple is completed, the ark enters the sanctuary and the glory of the Lord fills the house. The physical presence of this great new building, as well as the promise of peace motivates a heartfelt prayer of praise. Despite all of the success that Solomon has witnessed with his ascension to the throne and economic prosperity, Solomon does not draw the prayer to himself nor the temple. The temple dedication prayer centers on God: his great actions, his character, and most importantly his commitment to the covenant of David.

Perhaps this prayerful reminder of the covenant to David prompted Solomon to reflect on the limitations of the earthly temple, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less in this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)

At first glance, this verse is puzzling for a temple dedication prayer. The construction of the temple came at the cost of much labor and the sacrifice of many resources over years. Why not highlight this accomplishment? But as a chapter of reflection, the question about the overwhelming presence of God and the inadequacy of an earthly house is actually a much more appropriate reflection. Solomon is praying through the question of the divine transcendence and immanence. God is vast, majestic, and often beyond human cognition.

At the same time, God is accessible and a covenant partner with David. The prayer of Solomon sets a standard by which we can rely on God as mysterious, awesome, and uncontainable, and thus, demands our obedience. At the same time, Solomon recognizes that the inevitable failures of the people force them to rely on a personal God who is trustworthy, loving, and fatherly.

With this background, Solomon is able to turn to supplication. Despite the recent political and religious successes, Solomon is aware that Israel will face great challenges. Solomon does not merely ask in meek voice, as a humble request to the transcendent God. Rather, the biblical text shows Solomon using an imperative (command) voice to God. The human tells the deity to open his eyes and then to listen, no less than four times!

Solomon continues to give explanation for these demands. For God promised that his name will dwell with the people. Although the temple cannot contain God, it can serve as a place where God hears the human voice “night and day” (1 Kings 8:29). Solomon strategically even quotes from God himself, pleading, contending and making a case that God will listen.

Solomon prays for the community of Israel to recognize the holiness of God (verses 31-32), for forgiveness and restoration (verses 33-34), for physical sustenance even in the wake of natural calamity (verses 35-36). Solomon prays for the community to welcome the foreigners so that they shall also be accommodated for worship in the house (verses 41-43). It becomes clear that this prayer sets a foundation for Israel’s future. One can see echoes of 1 Kings 8 in the prayers of future leaders of Israel as they faced calamity:

  • King Hezekiah against the world’s most destructive military force
  • King Josiah trying to purge Judah from idolatry
  • Elijah’s prayer at Mount Carmel
  • Ezra’s plea for restoration
  • Daniel’s request for mercy during a time of national calamity

The temple provides the people of Israel a symbolic space to sacrifice and worship God. But of course, God is much greater than the Jerusalem temple. He is not limited to sacrifices during holy days and scheduled worship.

The prayer of Solomon demonstrates that God is equally present through sin, death, calamity, war, captivity, and sickness, most of which occurs outside the spatial confines of the temple. But thankfully, because God is transcendent and immanent, he will continue to listen to his people.

Lord God, whom no dwelling can contain,
In this house we gather to call upon your mercy, to thank you for your goodness, and to praise your name forever. Hear the pleas that come to you from all corners of the earth, that our words may not fall upon deaf ears, but that you, our creator, will respond with kindness, compassion, and grace, in the name of the one whose kingdom extends far beyond these walls, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Built on a rock   ELW 652
Lord Christ, when first you came to earth ELW 727, H82 598
Open your ears, O faithful people   ELW 519

I was glad, C. Hubert H. Parry