“…whatever prayer, whatever plea is made by any man or by all your people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind), that they may fear you all the days that they live in the land that you gave to our fathers. ”
Israel’s great King Solomon is remembered primarily for two things: his wisdom, and the temple that he built in fulfillment of the promise that God made to his father David (1 Kings 8:15-20, cf. 2 Samuel 7:13). Soon after its completion, Solomon dedicated it for use in Israel’s life (1 Kings 8:12-66). As Solomon prayed at the temple, he reflected that its completion was not simply the fulfillment of a promise, but an event with cosmological significance. The God who could not be contained by the highest heaven (1 Kings 8:27) had nevertheless come to his people, and made his dwelling place among them. The temple is called the ‘house of Yahweh’ eleven times in these central temple-building chapters (chs. 5-8). This is more than a symbolic statement: Israel was a nation who lived their lives in the presence of God.
Living in this way demanded holiness, but it also brought privileges. It meant that Israel could reach God, for they didn’t have to reach all the way into heaven. Unlike a lot of religions at that time (and now), and unlike many ideas of God that pass for ‘Christian’, God was not so utterly transcendent that he was unable to enter our world and deal with Israel at the level of history, relationship and personal interaction. 1 Kings 8:38-40 is an excellent example of the relationship that the temple mediates. Whenever some disaster comes upon Israel, Israel must turn towards the temple, pray, and plead with God. God in return will hear, forgive, and act. The bulk of Solomon’s prayer (1 Kings 8:31-53) lists out the situations in which which Israel can expect faithfulness and goodness from the God who dwells with them: in sin (8:31-32), in the face of military defeat (8:33-34), in drought (8:35-36), famine (8:37-40), when a foreigner comes to Israel (8:41-43), in battle (8:44-45), or in exile (8:46-53).
In each case the function of the temple is the same: Israel is to turn, pray, and plead; God will hear, forgive, and act. They could be assured that it was in God’s interest to act in their favour, for their dwelling place was his dwelling place, their land was his land. The temple was to be the symbol of Israel’s blessing, prosperity, life and hope.
The fascinating thing about this prayer in the books of Kings is that each of the calamities of Solomon’s prayer actually happen over the course of the narrative. There is sin and military defeat, a drought in the time of Elijah, and a famine in the time of Elisha. There are visitors from Sheba, Aram and Babylon. There are battles and exile. The thing that happens only once in the entire history of 1-2 Kings, is that Israel turn, pray, and plead.
Initially, the temple is simply ignored. After the account of its construction, it is almost entirely forgotten. When it re-emerges, it is simply a store-house of treasure that the kings of Judah plunder, usually to pay tribute to one aggressive neighbouring nation or another. Of course, in the end of 2 Kings, it is destined to be handed over to the Babylonians and destroyed. In the temple the God of Israel comes to his own, but his own do not receive him. Solomon’s temple is like his entire kingdom: constructed from the best of human strength, wisdom and wealth. This was the temple Solomon built, and like all things human, it fails.
But in this failure, God’s promise and purpose are not thwarted. The failure of Solomon’s temple points us towards a greater temple—the day when someone greater than Solomon will be here, when God will once again make his dwelling place amongst his people. This temple too is destined to be rejected by Israel and handed over to be destroyed by Gentiles. And yet, this temple is destined for something greater: to be raised on the third day.
It is no wonder that Jesus’ disciples realized that they had found in their master all of the things that Israel should have expected from the temple: blessing, prosperity, life, and hope, for they lived their lives in the presence of God. It is no wonder that the apostle Paul would find these same things amongst the people of God, for the Spirit of God had come upon them and dwelled in them. We Christians find ourselves now in this position. As the temple of God, the church mediates the blessing of God to the kingdoms of this world. And, far from being plundered, as the gospel goes out, the treasures of this world flow into it and fill it with a glory that Solomon’s golden temple never had (Haggai 2:7-9).