1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13
During this series on the big epic stories of the Hebrew Bible, I’m tempted every week to do a television flashback: Previously, on The Bible:
You remember that we’ve walked with the Israelites through their origins as a nomadic desert people claimed by the Creator God, into the empire of Egypt and Pharoah’s courts, out of slavery and into their own, promised land.
You remember that, once they got there, they became unsatisfied with the way God was choosing to lead them – through judges: priests and prophets and warriors raised up from among them – and demanded that they be given a King, to rule them like all the other important nations they saw around them.
And you remember that God conceded, sent them Saul – the least possible qualified man – to be their first King. And Saul did indeed fight the Israelites’ battles for them – exactly what they’d asked for – but he also slowly descended into madness.
You remember that God’s spirit departed from the mad king and went to dwell with David, the unlikely young shepherd boy, that Saul went even more mad with envy and when he finally died in a battle with the Philistines, David took over the throne.
Well, this week, we arrive at the end of King David’s life.
David is on his deathbed, and his oldest son, Adonijah, jumps the gun. He assumes, since he is the oldest surviving son of the King, that he will automatically inherit the throne.
But we, followers of this story since the beginning, know what a huge mistake that assumption can be.
Adonijah goes about boasting “I will be king!” He stocked up on chariots and horses, rallied a few prophets and military leaders to his cause, and threw himself a celebration banquet of sacrificial feasts.
Except Adonijah hadn’t actually gotten his father’s blessing, yet. And David the King was still alive. So some of the other prophets and military leaders, who did not support Adonijah, went to one of David’s wives and told her what was going on. Bathsheba went into sickly King David’s chamber and convinced him to bestow his blessing on HER son, Solomon (sound familiar, eh? Just like Jacob and Esau and their wily mother Rebekah?)
The fading King David listens to Bathsheba and names his younger son, Solomon, to the throne. Adonijah is properly chastized, and goes to his younger brother with his tail between his legs and apologizes, begging Solomon not to kill him. Solomon agrees (although Adonijah continues to act like the braggart and entitled man he has shown himself to be, seduces one of his father’s concubines in an act that is tantamount to usurping the throne, and Solomon does, eventually, have him killed).
Still, even though there is this age-old sibling rivalry, the Israelites have managed to establish themselves – they’re in the land that God had always promised them; they have not only a King, but, with this transition from father to son, an actual generational monarchy. They’ve seemingly escaped slavery and managed to defeat enough of their enemies to enter into an era of relative peace. In fact, once Solomon takes the throne, the text says that “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sands of the sea; they ate and drank and were content.”
Moreover, the King himself is doing QUITE well. We learn that his rule “extended over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and the boundary of Egypt.” Every day, Solomon’s subjects provided him with pounds and pounds of corn and flour, 10 fattened oxen, 20 pasture-fed oxen, 100 sheep and goats plus deer and gazelles, roebucks and fatted geese. Every DAY. The King had 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariotry and 12,000 horsemen.
Every one, from Dan to Beer-sheba – the whole nation – sat under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and they all dwelt in safety.
This is a far cry from the nomadic, desert existence that this people had come from.
And what does the nation of Israel decide to be most important in this moment of safety, prosperity and contentment?
They decide to build a temple for God to dwell with them in the same kind of safety that they are enjoying. Surely, they think, if all this food and wine and contentment is so enjoyable for us then it must be also what God would like. We tried to build him a temple back when David was king, but there were too many enemies that we had to fight and so we had to wait. Now is the time, for sure! Let’s build a gorgeous, elaborate, gilded home for our God.
Well, actually, it wasn’t so much the entire people that made this decision: it was mostly King Solomon.
And King Solomon had some interesting alliances. He’d really gotten into the whole King thing, and had decided to marry a daughter of Pharoah, to cement the international alliances with the empire of Egypt. Yes, that’s right – he’d married the daughter of the monarchy that had, not so long ago, held his entire people in slavery. Oh, and he had a great friend from Tyre – a buddy of his father’s – who was the best of the best when it came to Cedar trading. He decided to import all the cedar for this huge temple from another nation, since, as he tells King Hiram, “as you know, there is none among us who knows how to cut timber like the Sidonians. I’ll send you my workers and we can get that Cedar cut and planed in no time.”
This international flavor was…weird. For a people who had been called out to be the chosen ones, set apart as God’s own, instructed again and again, over and over not to marry outside their own nation for fear of diluting their commitment to the God who chose them, commanded over and over to go to war against peoples whose cultic religion posed a threat to their worship of the one true God, entering so effortlessly into alliances with empire and other nations – explicitly, mind you, for the purposes of amassing power and wealth – is sort of unheard of.
Solomon is…up to something, here.
And if it’s not entirely clear yet, we learn soon that what Solomon is up to is not exactly for the glory of God and his neighbor’s good.
And God is not fooled. God does not instruct Solomon to build a temple, but God does say, when he speaks to Solomon: “In regard to this House you’re building – if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the promise that I gave to your father, David: I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake my people.”
In other words: “Do what you want, Solomon, but my promise remains the same as it always has been: whether you worship me in the desert or the temple, all I ask is that you BEHAVE in the ways I’ve commanded you. Keep the commandments, and I’ll never forsake my people. This temple is fine, whatever, but you know as well as I do that I – the Lord and King of the Universe, the one who exists shrouded in mystery and glory – I don’t need a…HOUSE.”
But Solomon goes right on doing what he’s doing: and he makes it happen by enslaving his own people. “King Solomon,” we hear, “imposed forced labor on all Israel; the levy came to 30,000 men. He sent them to Lebanon (where the Cedars were being cut) in shifts of 10,000 a month…Solomon also had 70,000 porters and 80,000 quarriers.”
The Hebrew word that Solomon uses when he’s striking the deal for Cedars with King Hiram to share Israelite labor for the Cedar cutting is “mas” – this Hebrew word only occurs one other time, in Exodus 1:11, “so they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.” In other words, what Solomon has done to his own people is exactly what Pharoah did to the entire Israelite nation in Egypt: enslaved them.
It’s impossible to hear this detail recounted so nonchalantly and not remember God’s warning to the people way back in Samuel’s time – telling them that if they got a King, all a King would do would be to amass wealth for himself and enslave them all.
As if that weren’t enough, we also learn that while Solomon, in his fervor to amass as much wealth and power as possible, spent seven entire years building this temple to house God, he then proceeded to build his own home – and that palace took THIRTEEN years to build.
It’s pretty clear that even though this temple will come to be unbelievably important to God’s people, even though for thousands of years, people will make pilgrimage here to be in God’s presence, even though the temple’s destruction in a few years will cause a massive identity crisis, even though good and proper and sacramental worship is an important part of faithfulness…
…this temple, like this whole ‘king’ thing, is not exactly God’s first choice for God’s people.
And, in fact, when the temple is finally completed – cedar planks, a shrine overlaid with gold, a holy of holies complete with two cherubim made of olive wood and overlaid with gold, doors carved with cherubim and palms – and Solomon calls all the people together for a great feast to dedicate it, to transfer the Ark of the Covenant – the seat of the divine presence, that’s been kept in a tent all these years (you remember the Ark because of the whole hemorrhoid debacle during Samuel’s time) – into this brand new, gold-gilded and cedar-planked building, God does show up.
God has promised, after all, not to abandon her people. God’s deep desire is to abide with the people, to refuse to forsake them. So, when her people build her a gorgeous, gilded house, she shows up.
Except God does not show up as a bodily figure, or a stationary liquid to fill the Ark of the Covenant. No, God shows up true-to-form: as a cloud. And the cloud fills the entire temple, makes it so full and hazy that the priests themselves have to leave. They can’t even make their sacrifices or do their ritual job because the presence of the God that this temple was built to house is so HUGE, so unwieldy, so fluid, so uncontrollable and uncontainable that when God showed up, she drove the priests out.
This could not have been unexpected: God showed up as a cloud back in the wilderness, leading the Israelites by day out from slavery. The Israelites knew that God was an unpredictable and uncontainable being – hasn’t this story been, from the beginning, about a mysterious, expectation-defying, tradition upending God who wants only for his people to trust him?
When God showed up in a cloud and drove the priests out of this newly constructed temple, Solomon starts praying:
“The Lord has chosen to abide in a thick cloud: I have now built for You a stately House, a place where You may dwell forever.”
Um. What? The Lord is a cloud! And I have built a House!
That’s absurd. Clouds aren’t contained in houses. Clouds don’t belong inside. Clouds are part of the sky, part of the heavens, meant to be on the move. Clouds aren’t stationary.
But Solomon is PROUD of this cloud-house he has built, and the people – enslaved into the labor needed to construct it, subjects of a King who will spend twice as long on his own house as he does for the Lord’s – seem equally happy.
Solomon says a long-winded prayer to God, then turns around and offers a long-winded blessing to the people. He requires them to stick around for a long-winded Feast – it lasts seven days. And, we hear “on the eighth day, he let the people go. They bade the king good-bye and went to their homes, joyful and glad of heart over all the goodness that the Lord had shown to His servant David and his people Israel.”
To summarize: the Israelites, led out of slavery under an oppressive Pharoah and formed to be a nomadic people traveling with their God who promises to show up with them wherever they find themselves have now submitted themselves – joyfully – to a King who’s married into Pharoah’s family, convinced them to happily become slaves in order to build a permanent house for God.
I will admit that this reading of Solomon and the temple is not exactly orthodox – the traditional way to read the story is to laud honor and compliments on Solomon, this faithful man who obeyed God’s command to build a gold-gilded monument to the Lord. Solomon is, after all, the King who was wiser than any other.
But every detail here is present in the text. The writer of 1 Kings is not a fan of Solomon, and he is not a fan of temple worship.
Or, since the writer of 1 Kings was actually writing for the Israelites who had been exiled from their land and seen this temple destroyed, maybe he was telling the story in a way that made all that loss and grief palatable: yes, this is AWFUL, y’all – that we’ve been cast out of our land and the temple has been demolished, but don’t worry: none of that is what God really wants for us, anyway.
Either way, I find this story of Solomon and the temple pretty instructive for the ways and the places we choose to worship today.
I confess that I don’t feel comfortable in gold-gilded, relief-carved, column-filled houses of worship. The ancient cathedrals of Europe are imposing and unbelievably gorgeous, and I do marvel at the artistry and creativity and sheer strength of will and body that made them possible. Even Duke Chapel, here in town, a pale replica of all that, is impressive.
But those places are not where I feel at ease with God. I do not sense God present more in those spaces than anywhere else. And, honestly, I LIKE that we worship here in an unassuming, cinder block, multi-purpose, unadorned building. Simple spaces help me to recognize God present in the sisters and brothers surrounding me, help me pay attention to the ways God is at work always and everywhere, not confined to fancy buildings or elaborate rituals.
And that’s pretty Brethren. Brethren have a long history of refusing the trappings of church liturgy and power structures and buildings. The first Brethren gathered because those trappings had become barriers to what they called simple, unadorned faith. We have insisted, over and over, in many different ways, that we believers do not require special dispensation, special leaders, special institutions, special times, special education, special vocabulary, special food, special words or special buildings in order to be in deep and transformative relationship with the one who made us.
This kind of insistence on simplicity does have the capacity to rob us of some of the richness of faith. There are advantages and blessings in ritual, in liturgy, in beauty, in systems of accountability, in following a church calendar instead of a seasonal one, even in worshipping in spaces filled with symbols and reminders of God’s glory. I love and appreciate so much of the church’s tradition that comes to us in these vessels.
And yet, I think the wisdom of our anabaptist ancestors is in line with the wisdom we learn from Solomon: God’s promise is and has always been that if we obey God’s voice, then we will be God’s people. God has never asked us to construct fancy temples, and whether or not we worship with the proper songs or in the proper key or with the proper words or in the proper order or gathered among the proper cedars and gold-gilded cherubim simply does. Not. Matter.
In fact, spending all our time and energy on “proper” worship will probably, in the end, effectively distract us from actually listening to and obeying God’s voice in that mobile cloud.
If we’re too worried about how well we are doing here in this sanctuary, whether or not we’ve gotten enough cedar planks or olive wood cherubim, we’ll miss out on God’s call to be out in the world, loving God and loving our neighbors. God shows up in a cloud, kicks the priests out of the temple, and continues to call the Israelites into a journey of discipleship. God doesn’t want to sit around in a house and hear about how great she is (though if we decide to build a house, God will show up because God has promised to abide with us, to be our God, to never forsake us) – God is on the move, and asks us, over and over, to join her.