Commentary on 1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13
The building of the temple is a major turning point in the history and religion of Israel.
There is mention of such a construction as early as 2 Samuel 7 and it is “on deck,” as it were, since that point in the story of Israel’s kings (see also 1 Kings 3:1-2). In Samuel 7, David learns he will not build the temple for God because the Lord has no need for a permanent residence (verses 4-7), and hears that the task will fall to his son (verses 12-13). 1 Chronicles 22:8 has a different take on the situation: there David reports that God wouldn’t allow him to build the temple because he had too much blood on his hands. Either way, the task of the temple falls to Solomon and the details surrounding the project begin in earnest in 1 Kings 5:1 and dominate the opening chapters of the Book of Kings and much of the narrative about Solomon’s reign. Clearly one of the main things that Israel remembered Solomon for was constructing the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem.
The temple is obviously an important symbol — a permanent place for the worship of the Lord for all concerned, whether near or far (see 1 Kings 8:30, 34, 38, 41, 44, 47-48) — but the story of the temple is not without a good bit of ambiguity that is left for the reader to sort out.
The lectionary reading begins with 1 Kings 5:1-5, which records how the move toward the construction of the temple is spurred on, in part, by a foreign king, Hiram of Tyre. Hiram had been loyal to David (verse 1) and Solomon capitalizes on this friendship after David’s death by taking the king into his confidence about the temple project (verse 5), largely because he wants the cedars of Lebanon as construction material (verse 6). The temple for Israel’s God will be built, then, with materials from foreign soil, which strikes one as a bit odd, if not for the opening note about Hiram’s friendship with David and the fact that Solomon is at pains to make the theological nature of this project clear. The temple, he tells Hiram, is “for the name of the LORD my God,” and is possible because “the LORD my God has given me peace on every side”; given that peace, the plan is now “to build a temple for the name of the LORD my God, just as the LORD indicated to my father David” (verses 3-5).1 Solomon is clear, therefore, and so must Hiram be upon hearing this message, that this enterprise is about “the LORD,” the God of his friend David and David’s son Solomon. Somewhat surprisingly, and yet coming as no real surprise in light of the emphatic theology of Solomon’s message, Hiram, the King of Tyre, himself blesses the LORD when he receives the news (verse 7b)! So, if the involvement of a foreign power in the construction of the temple is a cause for concern, it is nevertheless also clear that foreign involvement can be cause for joy (verse 7a) and a way that the Lord’s name is spread abroad.
The Narrative Lectionary skips over many of the intervening details to arrive, in 1 Kings 8:1, at the dedication of the temple. But the details that come between 5:5 and 8:1 should not be neglected by preachers as they reveal further ambivalent aspects of the temple project. Two are particularly worrisome.
The first is that Solomon instates an immense “work gang” (CEB) to carry out the labor in Lebanon (5:15). The term that is used for this workforce in Hebrew (mas) occurs elsewhere of Israelite workers only in Exodus 1:11, where the Israelites are subject to a brutal and tyrannical pharaoh and his taskmasters (see also Exodus 5:10-14). It is thus very hard to not see in the use of this particular term an extremely negative judgment on the labor in question as well as on how Solomon’s has gone about his temple building project. This suspicion is confirmed later, when the nation divides immediately after Solomon’s death: clearly, the Israelites were not pleased with this forced labor and with their “supervisors” (1 Kings 12:18; 2 Chronicles 10:18). It all seemed a bit too Egyptian, if you asked them.
The second detail is the difference in the time it took for Solomon to build the temple versus how long it took him to build his palace. The narrator is typically laconic, noting almost in passing that the temple took 7 years (6:38) while the palace took 13 (7:1), without commenting on the discrepancy, but the fact that the royal palace took almost twice as long as God’s temple surely communicates something about the structures themselves — and their builder.
These details ought to be kept in mind as one comes to 1 Kings 8:1-13 so as to see it in its fullest light. This unit recounts the solemn conclusion of the temple building. It is a ceremony with great pomp and circumstance as the furnishings that were previously in the tabernacle are brought to the temple — above all, the ark of the covenant, which is carefully placed in the most holy place (verses 3-9). There are appropriate, even “countless” sacrifices (verse 5; see verses 62-64), and once the ark is in position and the priests depart, the temple is filled with the Lord’s glory (verses 10-11), which is exactly what had happened long ago when the tabernacle was finished (see Exodus 40:34-35). The transfer from tabernacle to temple is therefore a success. Furthermore, in the case of the temple, just as with the tabernacle, the texts make clear that the glorious presence of God intervened in such a way that normal priestly activities had to be suspended (Exodus 40:35a; 1 Kings 8:11). The Lord’s glory constitutes nothing short of a divine interruption, which shows that despite all the pomp and circumstance, the sacrifices, the holy apparatus, and the structures in question, Israel’s God cannot be managed by human beings and that divine presence takes precedence over them and their devices in decisive, even inconvenient ways.
Then come the final two verses, at least for this lectionary reading (the unit proper continues through the end of chapter 8), which are also quite ambiguous, especially in light of all that has come before. First, Solomon states that the Lord had indicated a preference to live in a dark cloud (verse 12). The Hebrew term that is used here (‘arapel) is one that is often used in the storm-cloud theophanies of the Old Testament (see, for example, Exodus 20:21; Deuteronomy 4:11; 5:22; 2 Samuel 22:10; Psalm 18:10; Psalm 97:2). While none of these texts record the statement that Solomon here attributes to God, it nevertheless seems true enough; whatever the case, it is worth noting that, in Deuteronomy, the Lord’s presence amidst the dark clouds functions to preserve divine freedom, especially vis-à-vis the temptation to idolatry, which is another word for the human attempt to limit divine freedom and manage divine access.
Solomon, however, sees no need for caution, as he continues on, apparently ignorant of all possible ironies: “but I have indeed built you a lofty temple as a place where you can live forever” (verse 13; CEB). God had said one thing (verse 12) but Solomon did something else (verse 13). Now God’s presence in the temple affirms, to some degree at least, what Solomon says: that God, or at least God’s name (see 5:3, 5; 8:29),2 will inhabit this structure (see also 6:11-13). But surely the God whose glory disrupts all activity in the temple (and in the tabernacle before it) cannot be housed by it, cannot truly live in it, nor be contained by it, let alone forever — especially if this God prefers to inhabit the dark, amorphous and unstructured, uncontainable cloud. Israel, at its best, knew that the temple could contain only the hem of the Lord’s divine robes (Isaiah 6:1). And Israel, at its worst, would come to know in painful ways that God’s presence, even God’s throne on top of the cherubim, was devastatingly mobile: not stuck or confined to a temple (see Ezekiel 8-10), particularly one built by someone who was evidently unaware of the full grandeur of the God he was dealing with.3
1. It is worth pondering the connection between peace and the lack or defeat of enemies and the desire for a secure building such as the temple. In more uncertain times the people of faith get along just fine, it seems, without such permanent structures. See Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys, 2000), 75.
2. For this distinction, which some take to be a sophisticated theological move on the part of the Deuteronomists, see Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1987), 56-57; Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, 75-76.
3. Though outside the lectionary unit, Solomon’s words in 8:27, where he seems to acknowledge that God cannot be contained, even in the highest heaven, should not be neglected. His prayer also repeatedly notes that God listens “from heaven” (verses 30, 32, 34, 36, 39, 43, 45, 49). These statements do not fully resolve Solomon’s “temple problem,” however, so much as provide yet another instance of its ambivalence.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
The splendor of Solomon’s temple cannot compare to the majesty of your heart. Show your heart in this place, that we might worship you with joy and gratitude. Amen.
God’s Son has made me free, Edvard Grieg