All Peoples | Proper 16

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)

All Peoples

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

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Wise | Proper 15

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

2:10 Then David lay down with his ancestors and was buried in David’s City. 11 He ruled over Israel forty years–seven years in Hebron and thirty-three years in Jerusalem.

12 Solomon sat on the throne of his father David, and his royal power was well established.

3:3 Now Solomon loved the LORD by walking in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines.

4 The king went to the great shrine at Gibeon in order to sacrifice there. He used to offer a thousand entirely burned offerings on that altar. 5 The LORD appeared to Solomon at Gibeon in a dream at night. God said, “Ask whatever you wish, and I’ll give it to you.”

6 Solomon responded, “You showed so much kindness to your servant my father David when he walked before you in truth, righteousness, and with a heart true to you. You’ve kept this great loyalty and kindness for him and have now given him a son to sit on his throne. 7 And now, LORD my God, you have made me, your servant, king in my father David’s place. But I’m young and inexperienced. I know next to nothing. 8 But I’m here, your servant, in the middle of the people you have chosen, a large population that can’t be numbered or counted due to its vast size. 9 Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help.”

10 It pleased the LORD that Solomon had made this request. 11 God said to him, “Because you have asked for this instead of requesting long life, wealth, or victory over your enemies– asking for discernment so as to acquire good judgment–12 I will now do just what you said. Look, I hereby give you a wise and understanding mind. There has been no one like you before now, nor will there be anyone like you afterward. 13 I now also give you what you didn’t ask for: wealth and fame. There won’t be a king like you as long as you live. 14 And if you walk in my ways and obey my laws and commands, just as your father David did, then I will give you a very long life.” (CEB)

Wise

The story of Solomon’s request for wisdom is iconic. Most of us probably heard the story in Sunday School classes when we were kids. But, just like today’s text, Sunday School lessons tend to skip over the ugly parts, like the executions that helped secure Solomon’s rule. Our text begins with David’s death and a recap of the number of years he ruled. And we’re told that Solomon sat on David’s throne.

In chapter three, there are some curious comments that only make sense when we realize that the books of Kings are part of a group of writings that includes Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and Samuel called Deuteronomic History. The majority of scholars date the first versions of these books to the reign of King Josiah, who was killed in battle with Pharoah Necho II at Megiddo in 609 B.C. These Deuteronomic texts present a theology called Deuteronomic theology, which declares that bad things happen to people and nations because they’re getting what they deserve due to sin they’ve committed. One thing these books do is assign blame for the ruinous things that occurred in Israel’s history. These texts were likely edited during the Babylonian Exile, or early in the Post-exilic period. The edited versions introduce a focus on a single place of worship, which was the Temple in Jerusalem.

Now, the reason scholars believe these books were edited is because the idea of a central place of worship for the People of Israel didn’t show up until Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms, at the earliest, and maybe not until the post-exilic period with the priest Ezra. Before those reforms, the people worshipped all over the place. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob built altars and shrines all over the place. The Tabernacle that God told Moses to build as the people wondered through the wilderness of Sinai was designed as a mobile sanctuary that was erected wherever Israel camped.

At times it rested at Gilgal (Joshua 4,5,10), Shiloh (Joshua 18,19,22) where it remained for about 350 years. It was also likely at Bethel (Judges 20), probably at Nob (1 Samuel 21-22), and it was definitely at Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39). When David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the Tabernacle remained at Gibeon until Solomon brought it to Jerusalem for the dedication of the Temple (c.f. 1 Kings 8:4).

First Kings 3:3 tells us, “Now Solomon loved the Lord by walking in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines” (CEB). It’s that second half of the verse that makes it sound like sacrificing and burning incense at the shrines was a bad thing. And, to the later editors of the Deuteronomic writings, it was! But through all of Israel’s history up to Solomon’s day at beyond the people of Israel were supposed to worship at the Tabernacle. David may have moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, but the Tabernacle was where God met the people. It was the sign and place of God’s presence within Israel.

So, despite the disapproval of whoever edited 1 Kings, Solomon was actually doing exactly what he was supposed to do! The proof that Solomon was doing what’s right is proved in the fact that, after he worshipped in the Tabernacle at Gibeon, God showed up. Actually, God did more than show up. God appeared to Solomon in a dream and offered to give him anything he wished. He’s the only one who ever got that kind of a blank check from God.

If God were to give us the same offer, how would we respond? Would we answer right away, or would we have to think about it? What would we ask for? The way we answer that question would certainly reveal our priorities.

As for Solomon, he paused to reflect on his father’s life and on his own. He noted how much kindness God showed to David when he walked before the Lord in truth, righteousness, and with a heart that was true to God. The Lord’s kindness and loyalty to David had now been extended to himself since Solomon now sat on his father’s throne. Solomon recognized that God made him king in David’s place. This wasn’t something Solomon accomplished on his own.

Solomon also recognized that the task of ruling was beyond his ability and experience. At the same time, he recognized that the people he was to govern were important. They were God’s own chosen people. I think Solomon recognized that he might be the king, but the people of Israel belong to God, not to him. He was a steward. So, he asked for a “discerning mind” in order to govern God’s people and to distinguish good from evil. “No one,” Solomon confessed, “is able to govern this important people of yours without your help” (1 Kings 3:9 CEB).

There are a few things we should note about Solomon’s request. First, translations vary. Some say Solomon asked for a “discerning heart” (NIVO), an “understanding mind” (RSV, NRSV), an “understanding heart” (KJV), or a “discerning mind” (CEB). As a kid, I always heard my teachers say that Solomon asked for wisdom, which is what God gave him in verse 12. But, Walter Brueggemann translates it as listening heart because the Hebrew word is ‎שֹׁמֵ֙עַ֙  (shema), which means hear, listen. Brueggemann wrote, “It is remarkable that the phrase is not ‘to speak justice’ or ‘do justice,’ but instead to ‘hear justice,’ suggesting that justice is not in the verdict or in the imagination of the king but is intrinsic to the case itself, if only the king listens well enough to hear” (Feasting on the Word, Proper 15 Essay, 6).

That observation made me wonder, How well do we listen? We live in a culture where distractions can easily drown out the voices of people who need to be heard. Imagine how welcome listening hearts would be at the family dinner table. Imagine how supportive listening hearts could be in a worshipping congregation. Imagine how listening hearts might transform lives on a factory floor or a company boardroom. Imagine how welcome—and relieving—a listening heart would be in a government leader.

Solomon asked for the gift he needed to do the task to which he’d been appointed. He didn’t make his request for his own benefit. He asked for a listening heart for the benefit of his people, so that he could care for others and care for them well. Solomon was aware that this gentle wisdom, a listening heart given by God, would allow him to govern the people. He wanted to use the power of his office as King for the good of others. And that’s what pleased the Lord. Solomon’s humility toward God and selflessness toward God’s people probably made God smile. So, God gave him a heart of wisdom and discernment.

In almost every culture that is or has ever been, people clamor for power, wealth, and advantage over others. So, I imagine that, for most of us, the idea of having our greatest wish granted by the God of the Universe would be like winning the lottery. If riches or power or fame were what we desired, then we would find ourselves with sudden power, influence, and notoriety. Yet, Solomon understood that our requirement—what God wants from us—is selflessness toward others. That’s what Jesus teaches. It’s what the prophets declare. It’s what the Law of Moses states. The Old and New Testaments describe the qualities of life that are pleasing to God: that we empty ourselves for others, that we seek the common good, that we put the needs of others before our own, and that we acknowledge our dependence on God and God’s gifts to us.

Where did Solomon get this humility? Where did he get this selflessness? Honestly, I think it stems from Solomon’s love for and worship of the Lord. Worship has a way of transforming us. It affects how we live, how we love, how we give. It molds and forms us into God’s people, and it connects us to one another and to God.

Proverbs 1:7 tells us that “Wisdom begins with the fear of the LORD, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (CEB). Solomon’s wisdom was famous across the world. Yet, it wasn’t really Solomon’s. Wisdom, the Old Testament writings declare, comes from God and is given to humanity as a gift (c.f. Proverbs 1; Sirach 1). Solomon’s listening heart was a gift from God.

What we also learn from Solomon is that everything else we have is a gift from God, too. Solomon could have asked for wealth, fame, and a long life. He could have put himself first. Instead, he sought to be made into an instrument that God could use for the good of others. In essence, Solomon’s request was along the lines of what Jesus would later tell us to do: “…desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay