1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43
8:1 Then Solomon assembled Israel’s elders, all the tribal leaders, and the chiefs of Israel’s clans at Jerusalem to bring up the chest containing the LORD’s covenant from David’s City Zion.
6 The priests brought the chest containing the LORD’s covenant to its designated spot beneath the wings of the winged creatures in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the most holy place.
10 When the priests left the holy place, the cloud filled the LORD’s temple, 11 and the priests were unable to carry out their duties due to the cloud because the LORD’s glory filled the LORD’s temple.
22 Solomon stood before the LORD’s altar in front of the entire Israelite assembly and, spreading out his hands toward the sky, 23 he said: LORD God of Israel, there’s no god like you in heaven above or on earth below. You keep the covenant and show loyalty to your servants who walk before you with all their heart. 24 This is the covenant you kept with your servant David, my father, which you promised him. Today, you have fulfilled what you promised. 25 So now, LORD, Israel’s God, keep what you promised my father David, your servant, when you said to him, “You will never fail to have a successor sitting on Israel’s throne as long as your descendants carefully walk before me just as you walked before me.” 26 So now, God of Israel, may your promise to your servant David, my father, come true.
27 But how could God possibly live on earth? If heaven, even the highest heaven, can’t contain you, how can this temple that I’ve built contain you? 28 LORD my God, listen to your servant’s prayer and request, and hear the cry and prayer that your servant prays to you today. 29 Constantly watch over this temple, the place about which you said, “My name will be there,” and listen to the prayer that your servant is praying toward this place. 30 Listen to the request of your servant and your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Listen from your heavenly dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive!
41 Listen also to the immigrant who isn’t from your people Israel but who comes from a distant country because of your reputation–42 because they will hear of your great reputation, your great power, and your outstretched arm. When the immigrant comes and prays toward this temple, 43 then listen from heaven, where you live, and do everything the immigrant asks. Do this so that all the people of the earth may know your reputation and revere you, as your people Israel do, and recognize that this temple I have built bears your name. (CEB)
The dedication of a new building can be a grand event. Solomon ushered in the dedication of the temple with the carrying in of the Ark of the Covenant and a prayer. God participated, too, by filling the temple with the cloud that represented God’s presence. This holy cloud not only legitimized the temple, but also Solomon’s reign as king. After all, Solomon mentions his father, David, several times in a not-at-all subtle reminder to everyone that he is the legitimate heir to the throne.
As I read and studied this text over the past week, what really stood out to me was the prayer that Solomon prayed. It shifts between language that sounds holy and humble, and language that sounds self-legitimizing. There’s a lot to like in the prayer Solomon offers. Yet, I think we have to hold those likeable things in tension with the rest of Solomon’s story.
Personally, I can’t help but feel skeptical of Solomon’s intentions. For someone who was known far and wide for his wisdom, his quick betrayal and abandonment of the God who gave him that wisdom as a gift makes his failure all the more profound and perplexing. That’s why this story causes me to worry a little. After all, if Solomon, in all his wisdom, could turn away from the God he loved so much (1 Kings 3:3), who’s to say that I couldn’t betray the God I love in some profound way? So, I read Solomon’s words with a hyper-critical eye, almost as if I’m drawn to find some flaw in them; some seed that might reveal the beginnings of that great betrayal. I almost feel bad about approaching it that way.
Then again, maybe a faithful reading of this text requires a little skepticism. Especially when we know that soon after Solomon shouted to the people from the front of the temple, “There is no other God!” (8:60), he would abandon the Lord and worship other gods like Astarte, Milcom, Chemosh, and Molech.
Molech was the god associated with child sacrifice, which, the Scriptures tell us, some among the people of Israel practiced. Second Kings 21:6 tells us that King Manasseh burned his own son alive (c.f. also 2 Chronicles 33:6). The prophet Jeremiah complains in more than one place that people burned their sons and daughters at the shrines (c.f. Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5). It sounds disgusting, doesn’t it? While the temple to the Lord is part of Solomon’s legacy, so too are these shrines to other gods that he built, and the things that took place on them.
Maybe that’s why Solomon’s prayer includes so much anticipation of failure. If you read all seven of Solomon’s petitions, you’ll see that he lists possible scenarios in which the people might sin and get punished. The different sections of Solomon’s prayer are never for God to simply forgive sins, but also for God to act in ways that will reverse the effects that sin has had on the lives of the people.
It’s more of Solomon’s wisdom shining through. He knew the people were going to mess up. Maybe he had an inkling that he would fall into sin, too. So, he asked God to listen, act, and decide (c.f. 1 Kings 8:32). Solomon entreated God to receive the prayers of the people by listening. He asked God to evaluate and decide upon those prayers in terms of the people’s repentance and in remembrance of God’s promises. And he urged God to act upon the prayers in order to affect the lives of those who pray (c.f. 1 Kings 8:31-40, 44-53).
We don’t often pray prayers of anticipation, do we?
Let’s look at this prayer more closely.
The first part of Solomon’s prayer recalls the covenant made between the Lord and David, and Solomon recognized that it had been fulfilled in himself. He quoted the promise to David in his prayer, “You will never fail to have a successor sitting on Israel’s throne as long as your descendants carefully walk before me just as you walked before me” (1 Kings 8:25 CEB).
It’s important that we note the contingency of this prayer. The promise God made to David about having a successor on Israel’s throne was not a blank check. It was contingent upon the king’s action to carefully walk before the Lord. Solomon obviously knew of that contingency because he mentioned it here. And, that contingency was relayed to Solomon more than once when God appeared to him.
When God later appeared to Solomon to repeat the promise, God said, “As for you, if you walk before me just as your father David did, with complete dedication and honesty, and if you do all that I have commanded, and keep my regulations and case laws, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, just as I promised your father David, ‘You will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.’ However, if you or your sons turn away from following me and don’t observe the commands and regulations that I gave you, and go to serve other gods, and worship them, then I will remove Israel from the land I gave them and I will reject the temple that I dedicated for my name. Israel will become a joke, insulted by everyone” (9:4-7 CEB).
We know that Solomon didn’t keep his end of that contingency requirement. He betrayed the Lord and worshipped other gods. And one of the results was a divided kingdom. Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, lost ten of the tribes to Jeroboam I, who became king of Israel, while Rehoboam was left with only the tribe of Judah (c.f. 1 Kings 11:11-13; 11:29-40). (I know that only adds up to eleven tribes, but you might recall that the Tribe of Levi was spread out in Levitical Cities within the eleven other tribal lands, so they didn’t have a larger territory of their own).
The contingency within Solomon’s prayer reflected the contingency of God’s promise. It was always a two-way street, an agreement that was to be upheld by both God and the people. It shouldn’t be surprising to us because the Lord’s Prayer has an element of contingency to it, too. We ask God to “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” What we’re asking God to do when we pray the Lord’s Prayer is to forgive us in the same measure that we forgive others. Or, to turn it around, not to forgive us as we fail to forgive.
Salvation, itself, has a measure of contingency to it. We don’t get to just accept God’s gift of salvation and continue to act in ways that run contrary to God’s love and action. Salvation might be God’s free gift to us, but it still requires something of us. Yet, even that required-something is a gift of God’s grace.
There are elements of Solomon’s prayer, as there was in his request for a listening heart in 1 Kings 3:9, that reveal a deep reliance upon God. Solomon’s problems arose when he stopped relying upon the Lord God of Israel and, instead, turned to other gods and his apparent assumption that he could do whatever he wanted. It was Solomon’s hubris that got ten tribes of the kingdom stripped away from his father, David’s, dynasty.
In his prayer, Solomon recognized that God is not tied to a building, or even a specific place. God’s name would be there, but God wouldn’t actually live in a building. God’s name represented God’s character, concern, and presence, but it doesn’t mean that God would be localized and put in a box. Solomon noted, “But how could God possibly live on earth? If heaven, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you, how can this temple that I’ve built contain you?” (v 27 CEB). God was present in the temple in the same way that God is present everywhere. God contains creation, creation does not contain God any more than a drinking glass could contain an ocean.
Solomon’s prayer was all-encompassing. He prayed for immigrants, too. He asked God to bless the prayers of foreigners in the same way that God answers the prayers of the people of Israel. Many scholars believe this part of the prayer was added to the text during the exile, when the people of Israel were reacquainted with the condition of marginalization as immigrants in a foreign land.
My DNA test results show that I’m roughly 12% Irish and 7% Italian. There was a time in this country when Irish and Italians were despised by “real” Americans. My Irish and Italian ancestors were thought of as trash by the American establishment. Because of that mindset about Irish and Italians, my ancestors, who came to this land seeking a better life, had a rough time.
But I don’t remember any of that. Nothing of their plight really affects me because, now, I’m part of the establishment. When we’re part of the establishment, it’s much easier to look down on those who aren’t. It’s much easier to ignore the difficulties and trials of those who aren’t.
The prophets ripped into the People of Israel and railed against the religious and political authorities because they forgot, and they mistreated immigrants and other marginalized people. Jeremiah stood at the gate of the temple and shouted, “Don’t trust in lies: ‘This is the LORD’s temple! The LORD’s temple! The LORD’s temple!’ No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly; if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place [a reference to those child sacrifices], or go after other gods to your own ruin, only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time” (Jeremiah 7:4-7 CEB).
The people of Israel forgot that they were the descendants of a wandering Aramean, that their ancestors were once slaves in Egypt, that they were once a people who wandered homeless from place to place. Whether this part of the prayer on behalf of immigrants is original to Solomon’s prayer or an addition from the years in exile, it’s important that we hear it and understand that God cares about immigrants, legal or not, documented or not. That truth of God’s deep concern for immigrants is highlighted in the fact that Solomon used the word נָכְרִי (nokri) instead of גּירִים (gerim). Gerim were typically non-Israelites living in the land of Israel, like the Gibeonites (Joshua 9). Nokri were people from other lands. Foreigners to the land of Israel.
This part of Solomon’s prayer should encourage us to take a hard look at current events. After all, we are a nation of immigrants. When we established Americans forget that, we can easily fall into the same sin as Israel and treat immigrants as if they don’t matter. If the Scriptures hold any truth in them at all, then God is not pleased with how we’re treating immigrants and refugees.
Solomon’s prayer gives us answers to questions we might not have bothered to ask. Where and how do we worship God? Who is welcome? We might note that, except for the inner rooms of the tent where only priests could go, the tabernacle and first temple didn’t exclude people through divisions. All the people could worship in the tabernacle and first temple’s courtyard.
In fact, Leviticus 1:2 is quite inclusive: it says, “When any of you present a livestock offering to the Lord…” (CEB). Any of you! Yet, the second and third temples had additional courtyards that divided men, women, and foreigners from each other. Women who went past a certain place would be stoned to death, as if they weren’t worthy to approach the Lord’s altar. Those with diseases or infirmities who went past a certain place would be stoned to death. Foreigners who went past a certain place would be stoned to death. These other courtyards that divided foreigners and women and the infirmed from the Holier places of the temple were not there because of God’s direction! They existed because of the unholy arrogance of the establishment.
Solomon’s prayer serves as a reminder that God is bigger than a building, and God is definitely bigger than our mindsets or assumptions about people, their worth, or their acceptability. Solomon and the people were to carefully walk before God. Their failure to do so, and the subsequent destruction of Solomon’s temple, remind us that our deeds matter. How we relate to people who are like us and different from us—who believe like us and believe differently from us—matters. Being people of God is about glorifying God in all we do. But to accomplish that, we need to pay attention to the things which God says bring God glory. We must listen to God as closely as we hope God is listening to us.
Maybe we should offer a few prayers of anticipation, too, because we’re going to sin. I believe Solomon’s anticipatory prayers hoped for his descendant, Jesus. God heard Solomon’s prayer, and acted upon it. After all, it’s through Jesus Christ that God has reversed the consequences of sin so that we might have life. In Jesus Christ, God answered Solomon’s prayer.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay