In this chapter, Solomon builds the new, permanent temple of the LORD.
At a high level, this chapter should remind us of Exodus 25-30. In Exodus, we are given a description of the tabernacle, the altars and the various other religious furnishings. Spanning over 6 chapters, those descriptions are far more detailed and expansive than what we have here, which is just the temple (which is replacing the tabernacle at this time). In terms of its factual construction, the temple is very similar to the tabernacle in the general layout, though the precise details vary. The biggest difference is that the temple is a permanent structure and is meant to be the LORD's permanent dwelling place, while the tabernacle was movable and intended to follow the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness. In cultural terms, it represents the shift from a nomadic, pastoral society into a static agrarian one. But in religious terms, the temple is a very close continuation to the tabernacle. Israel's society may be changing, but the way they are supposed to worship and seek God is not.
So, my reaction to this chapter is very similar to how I reacted to the tabernacle in Exodus. My first instinct is that this chapter means very little. It is filled with countless details that hardly seem to matter. The proportions of this room, the layout of that chamber, and it just goes on and on. It's like reading the SEC filing of some major corporation; it's filled with many numbers that I'm sure have a lot of meaning to an accountant somewhere, but means nothing to me.
My second instinct is to ask myself, should these details have meaning to me? Do these proportions or designs must have some kind of mystical or interpretive meaning? I can hardly stop myself from trying to piece everything together and figure out "what it all means".
My conclusion is that the truth is probably somewhere in-between. I think a lot of the peculiar details can be ignored with very little consequence, but that we can draw some high-level notions from the design of the temple to build a greater understanding of how to approach God. Indeed, the purpose of the temple itself is to provide a venue, and the sacrifices provide a process, for how the Israelites were meant to approach God. Although the physical temple no longer exists, both Jew and Christian alike have sought ways to copy the temple into their own hearts, and copy the sacrificial process into their own lives, that we might approach God wherever we live.
There are many people who have spent time analyzing the symbolic meaning of cedar versus cypress, gold versus silver, and the various numbers and proportions in this chapter and elsewhere. I do not intend to reproduce that analysis here though, since I don't think it is critical to understanding God's intention with the temple, or the author's purpose with this chapter.
I think the author's purpose is to convey the reality of the temple. He is saying, here is the size of the side rooms. They had doors there, and a stairway leading up. The holy place was this size and the most holy place was that size. It is all real, it was built, it existed, and this was how we worshiped God.
I think God's intention is expressed in the middle of the chapter, in verses 11-13, when he says "if you walk in my laws and obey my commands, I will dwell amongst you and your people forever." (paraphrase) The intention of the temple is to establish the permanence of God's residence amongst his people, even as God was intending to establish David's throne and dynasty forever. Solomon was the recipient of God's promises to David, just as Israel was recipient to God's promises to the patriarchs. In building the temple, Solomon and Israel are affirming God's covenant with them.
In terms of the structure of the temple, as I said before it is very similar to the tabernacle. It has multiple stages of holiness. First, there is the courtyard, which contained the bronze altar of burnt offerings. Then there is the nave, in front of the temple. Within the temple, there is first the holy place, and then most deeply within the complex is the most holy place, where the presence of God dwelt between the cherubim above the ark of the covenant. Not to dwell on the point excessively, but even this layout emphasizes that the covenant is central to Israel's relationship with God. Without the covenant, there is no purpose for the ark, and without the ark, God's presence would not dwell in the most holy place.
I also think the temple is designed to create a sense of progressive revelation. Most Israelites were not permitted into the temple; only the priests were allowed within. The most holy place was not permitted even to the priests; only the high priest was allowed in there. But to those who enter, there were also degrees of ritual purity. The people who enter the courtyard needed to be ritually clean. To enter the temple, the priests were required to take a special bath. To enter the most holy place, the high priest needed to make a series of sacrifices on his own behalf and on behalf of the people.
Why does God require this gradual approach, these layers of separation that are taken away one at a time? I think there are multiple answers to that. but what makes the most sense to me is that God is holy, pure and righteous. He is like a burning fire, and to approach him as a sinful person would burn us. God uses these layers for the same reason that Moses put a veil over his face to conceal the glory of God that rested on him when he went back to speak to the rest of Israel while he was conveying the Law to them in the book of Exodus. The glory can actually be damaging to people if their hearts are not purified. This is one of the reasons why 70 men (or 50070 men) from Israel died when they looked into the ark of the covenant in 1 Samuel 6:19. They were not sanctified or purified and they looked into the glory of God, and it was the glory that destroyed them.
Approaching God is not a trivial thing, and it should not be taken lightly. There are multiple stages because the human heart needs the time and process in order to acclimate to God's environment, and even then, most Israelites were not permitted to go into the deepest and most holy places.
Now, my readers should understand that life under the new covenant is significantly different from life under the old covenant, for reasons that I will address in depth when we get to the New Testament. But even still, many of these truths apply. God does not reveal all of his glory to us at once; we would be overwhelmed. Rather, he teaches us and builds us up progressively. Sometimes there is a shock of revelation, but these are usually structured so that we have preparation beforehand and time to digest it afterwards. These kinds of revelations can be life-altering, but I think they tend to be infrequent for that reason. A human soul can only absorb so many bursts before we start to flounder and lose our sense of identity and self.
To approach God, we must be changed and purified. But to change too rapidly, to be purified too swiftly, can ultimately be destructive. There is almost a violence inherent in change; it takes time to solidify and reform, and so change needs to be spread out over time. It is like physical exercise: working out actually damages your muscles, breaks down protein and depletes iron. What makes you stronger is the rebuilding process as your body repairs those muscles. But if someone exercises too vigorously and does not rest, that person actually loses muscle mass because then the destruction outpaces the rebuilding process. What had been helpful can become harmful if it is done without proper spacing and rhythm. It is the same when approaching God.
For my own sake, while I like to think of myself as a patient person, in many situations I am not. I am not patient about seeking God. I want to be immediately and instantly in the fullness of God's presence and remain there for the entirety of my life. I get frustrated at the process. I have had occasional bursts of growth and shocks of revelation, and I wonder why God doesn't do that all the time in my life. The dry and desert seasons are hard for me to understand because I don't feel like I am getting any closer to God in those times. I am pained and confused by the sense of distance that I feel runs contrary to all the promises of God. Like even in this chapter when God says that he would dwell in the midst of his people. It's true, he does dwell in their midst, but to approach him requires several stages of sanctification, and that can be challenging.
God ordained the seasons; he created winter, and he also declared that the seventh day would be a Sabbath, a holy rest. This is intentional, and it is an example for how we are supposed to structure our lives, even in pursuit of God. This is not to say that we take "time off" from God, or that God doesn't do anything in those times. Resting is part of the growth process, and we are supposed to pursue God in the midst of rest just as much as we pursue God in the midst of work. It looks different, however, and it feels different. We, as God's people, are called to be sensitive to what God is trying to do in us in every season, and to understand that the appearance of God's activity in your life will change just as much as the seasons. There is a rhythm in God's activity, and we can acknowledge his rhythm and patterns without exactly understanding them. Indeed, we must acknowledge them, because God is not going to change for our convenience or comfort, and if we do not accept God's ways then it will make those winter seasons much harder to deal with.
But once we learn to flow in those seasons, to mirror in our own lives and ambitions what God is trying to do in us, then we can find a harmony with him that transcends the seasons, and brings us into a closeness with him even in the midst of all the ups and downs in life.