Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Who or what is worshiped: God or the space itself?

Stay Awhile sign on bookshelf
Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

August 22, 2021

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11] 22-30, 41-43

This week’s reading presents us with another positive episode involving Solomon. We continue looking at Solomon as a person following in the footsteps of his father, David. David had wanted to build a house for God—a structure to house the presence of God which was reflected by the Ark of the Covenant. How Solomon came to be the one building the temple, and not his father, is reflected in 2 Samuel 7 where David offered to build “a house” for God. There God turned the tables and said that God would build a house for David instead, speaking symbolically about establishing an everlasting dynasty of the Davidic line. 

This meant that David’s bloodline would be the only legitimate family to provide a king to sit on the throne and reign over Israel. That Solomon was now on the throne was in fulfilment to that promise, and Solomon expressed that understanding in last week’s reading as he reflected that his current position as his father’s successor was not based on merit—he was not really equipped for the job. Solomon seems to have been so much aware of his inadequacies that even when he was asleep it was on his mind. Thus, in last week’s reading he asked God for a wise and understanding heart to govern the people well.  

This week’s reading focuses on some aspects of how Solomon used the divine wisdom and riches granted to him in last week’s reading. He not only built himself palaces but he successfully embarked on the project of building the permanent dwelling place which his father David had desired to do. Up to the time of David, the presence of God had been represented by the Ark of Covenant that had been a movable tent structure. David successfully moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, where Solomon built the magnificent Temple that is now housing the Ark of the Covenant. 

In last week’s reading, it was highlighted that Solomon and the rest of the Israelites were worshipping at Canaanite worship centers, which was not ideal because people might end up worshipping Canaanite gods rather than their own God. So, Solomon in building the Temple has removed that confusion inherent in worshipping at Canaanite centers: confusing their Israelite God with Canaanite Gods. Israel now has its own worship center at a place that the Israelite God has chosen. There is a series of narratives that show how God chose Jerusalem as the religious center for the people of Israel (1 Samuel 4-7 and 2 Samuel 6). 

After completion of the building of the Temple, Solomon leads the people in a dedication ceremony. The selected portions of this long chapter focus on some significant words in Solomon’s second prayer at the dedication of the Temple. Solomon is acutely aware that God who transcends creation cannot be contained in a building no matter how magnificent the building is as he rhetorically states: “But will God indeed dwell on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” 

The Temple is a powerful symbol of God’s presence among the people. It is a place for individual and corporate prayer. It is a place for God’s name to dwell. I imagine it as a place that is God’s postal address. This is a place where people have a tangible connection to God and God hears and responds to the supplications made at or towards that place. 

The Temple does not take the place of God, neither is it equivalent to God. It is not to be worshipped, but God is worshipped there. This is a place where individuals and the community will find divine forgiveness. In the portion that is skipped, Solomon highlights certain occasions for prayer that include; reconciliation between neighbors (31-32); national defeat in battle (33-34); drought (35-36); famine and various plagues (37-40); war (44-45), including when a foreigner comes to pray. The inclusion of foreigners at the Temple is interesting because of the exclusive nature of Israel pronounced in the Hebrew Bible and also because of the non-coercive nature of the inclusion. It is not a militant conversion of non-Israelites but an openness that welcomes foreigners in a sacred space.  

This depiction of the Temple in Solomon’s prayer invites us to think about how we view our worship spaces. Is the presence of God evident in our worship spaces? Is the purpose of the space clear to all who enter it? Is the nature of the God worshiped in the space evident? How is it a place where forgiveness and reconciliation occur? How welcoming are our spaces of worship to those who feel lost, to those we consider as outsiders? Can the prayers of those who do not think, act or pray like “us” feel validated and heard? What is important in our spaces, the space itself or the presence of God in it? Who or what is worshipped; God or the space itself?  Solomon at this stage had a clear sense, do we?