Saturday, February 28, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 8

In this chapter, Solomon brings the ark into the new temple and dedicates it with a prayer and sacrifices.

This is a somewhat lengthy, but simple, chapter. Having built the new temple, Solomon is transferring the ark of the covenant from the old tabernacle of David and into the shiny new temple. From what I can tell, all the other furnishings, such as the various altars, table of consecrated bread and the golden lampstand, were constructed anew by Solomon. However, the ark of the covenant is not rebuilt, and he simply transfers it from the tabernacle (the Hebrew word means “tent”) to the new temple (the Hebrew word means “house”).

First of all, verse 1 tells us that they were going to “bring up the ark” from “Zion, the City of David” to Jerusalem. This is interesting because in most places in the bible, Zion is considered a poetic name for Jerusalem. Jerusalem is also called the City of David. I think it’s noteworthy that in 2 Samuel 6, the author of Samuel specifically says that the ark was brought up to “the City of David”; he never says it was brought to Jerusalem. However, in 2 Samuel 5 (just one chapter before), the author of Samuel describes David’s conquest of Jerusalem, saying in v. 6 that David “marched to Jerusalem to attack…” and in v. 7, “David captured the fortress of Zion, the City of David.”

My best guess is that Zion, “the City of David”, refers to a particular district or a fortified hill that overlooks the larger city of Jerusalem, and I suspect that David conquered both Zion and Jerusalem. Then he built his palace in the fortified fortress of Zion and established his tent for the ark and the LORD’s presence there. Afterwards, Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, but outside of the (probably more specific) fortress of Zion, and now he is moving the ark from Zion to the temple in Jerusalem.

As I mentioned above, in later times Zion gradually drifts from being a place-name to being a poetic name, referring to Jerusalem as a whole. This poetic drift expands even further, with Zion and Jerusalem both eventually becoming something like a philosophy, Zionism, which (in general terms) refers to the Jewish desire to return to the promised land, to “go up to Zion” and return not just to the city of Jerusalem, but more broadly to the LORD’s presence and to the faith of their ancestors. I will point out places where Zion is used in this way as we go along, but I expect to see it particularly often when we get to the book of Psalms. For now, it suffices to understand that the author of Kings is using the term far more literally.

King Solomon offers countless sheep and cattle. This is a demonstration of both piety and power.

Next, I would like to briefly reference v. 8 which says “and they are still there today”. We have read a couple statements like this, where the author establishes the continuity of some monument or tradition “until the present day”, and these are always interesting to me because, assuming we believe the author is speaking truthfully, it helps us to date when this particular passage was written. I’m sorry if this is a “spoiler” for anyone and if any of my readers get upset with me for giving away the ending, but in about 300 years after the life of Solomon, Israel and Judah are going to be conquered and taken into exile by foreign powers. I would feel worse about telling you guys if it hadn’t happened 2600 years ago. When they do, the temple is going to be looted and destroyed, and the poles of the ark will not longer be visible as “they are still there today”. Therefore, we can logically assert that the book of Kings (or this passage in particular) must have been written before the people of Judah were exiled and the temple was destroyed. This is interesting for at least a couple reasons, but in particular because the book of Kings itself refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple at the end of 2nd Kings. Although the point is debatable, I think it’s likely that Kings was written as a progressive commentary or chronicle of Israel’s history, and that the section here (in 1 Kings 8) was likely written sometime close to the events it was describing, while the end of the book was written after the destruction of Israel and the exile from the promised land.

It is likely that this chapter was not written cotemporaneously with the events it describes, because if it were, “still there today” would not mean anything. To say that something is “still true today” only has meaning to the extent that there is a timeframe between when it was originally true and when the author is presently writing. Otherwise, there is no point in saying that something is “still” true.

I don’t think there is any significant theological point here. I am just mentioning it because these are the seemingly minor comments that scholars can use to trace the construction and evolution of the Hebrew Bible, and I think it’s interesting for its own merit.

Next, in verse 9 the author notes that the ark of the covenant contained nothing but the two stone tablets “that Moses had placed in it at Horeb.” This statement is a little hard to reconcile with some previous passages. We had previously been informed that the ark also contained a jar of manna and the staff of Aaron that budded (Exodus 16:33, Numbers 17:10). These objects have not been mentioned since then, so one would assume that they had simply been left in-place (for hundreds of years, but still in-place). Rather, it appears that these items are now gone, and I don’t know why, when or how they were removed. As far as I can recall, they will never be mentioned again, so they simply disappeared without a trace. A sufficiently creative person could offer many possible explanations, but none of them have any real supporting evidence so I will leave this mystery for my readers to puzzle over just as I do.

In verses 10-11, the glory of God fills the temple with a cloud, manifesting his presence just like he did when his cloud and glory filled the tabernacle of Moses (Exodus 40:34, Leviticus 9:23, Num 14:10). This should call us back to the Exodus from Egypt and wandering in the desert, when the LORD’s presence dwelt among Israel, protected them and guided them. For nearly all of the Judges period through David’s kingdom, we have not had a manifestation of God’s presence like this, even though he was involved with guiding Israel’s affairs. This is a hopeful sign, then, that God has accepted Solomon’s temple and will dwell with his people again.

Then Solomon talks for a while. I will pick out the parts I find interesting or unexpected.

For this chapter as a whole, we should understand Solomon’s dual purposes of showing his devotion to the LORD and demonstrating his power and wealth to his subjects. There are many kings who have done this, and some kings are more interested in devotion and other kings are more interested in showing off to their subjects. Saul, for instance, offered a sacrifice in order to rally his men and Samuel rebuked him for it. David offered sacrifices every six steps when taking the ark of the covenant up to the fortress of Zion, and the LORD called David “a man after my own heart”. I get the sense that Solomon falls somewhere inbetween these figures. He is clearly a wise ruler, and he is devoted to the LORD, but he is also very pragmatic and his devotion is not wholehearted. I think Solomon is glad that the LORD’s presence filled the temple, but I also think he is glad that the people “blessed the king” (v. 66). Similarly, the people were “joyful and glad in heart” for the LORD’s blessing, and also joyful and glad in heart for having 14 days of rich feasting at the king’s expense.

With all that as context, I think Solomon’s prayer is mostly genuine; but I do think there is an aspect of showmanship as well, and I think Solomon is possibly just as interested in appearing pious as he is in being pious.

Now, let’s start near the beginning: Solomon asserts that God promised David that his dynasty would last forever, as long as his sons remain obedience to the LORD. This is a pretty incredible promise, but it also has a pretty important condition on it. As I’ve already stated, Israel is going to be destroyed as a nation in a couple hundred years, so unfortunately I think my readers should be able to guess by now that David’s descendants are not going to remain faithful to the LORD. Nevertheless, this promise that David’s dynasty would last forever has some interesting implications with regards to the Messiah. Later passages are going to call the Messiah the “son of David”, which suggests that the fulfillment of God’s promise to David is found not in a perpetual dynasty in Israel, but in something much more important.

Then Solomon lists the many kinds of prayers he would like the LORD to answer at his temple: prayers for justice and mercy, for foreigners and victory in battle against other foreigners. Most commonly, he asks that the LORD forgive Israel’s sins and reverse any of the various kinds of curses and plagues that might come upon them because of their sins. On the one hand, this shows us the general philosophy of the day, that plagues and misfortune come about as a result of sin, and on the other hand, it shows us just how many different kinds of misfortune they faced in Solomon’s era: defeat in battle, drought, plagues and locusts, disaster or disease, and most significantly, captivity and exile into a foreign land. The last one foreshadows Israel’s eventual defeat by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and their exile into foreign lands at the end of this book.

My favorite verse in this passage at the present moment is v. 36, “Teach them the right way to live.” This has been my own prayer recently, because I want to learn God’s ways and learn the right way to live.

I have heard other commentators point out the uniqueness of v. 41-43, when Solomon prays that God would answer the prayers of foreigners, even those who do not belong to the house of Israel, when they pray towards the temple, and that God would do whatever they ask of him, so that God’s name would be glorified by demonstrating his power to all the people of the world. This is the most selfless part of Solomon’s prayer, because in this instance he is not praying for God to bless Israel, but rather that God’s name would be glorified throughout the earth. This certainly demonstrates sincerity on Solomon’s behalf.

In verse 48, Solomon tells the Israelites that when they are in exile, they should pray towards the land, towards the city (Jerusalem) and towards the temple. In later times, it would become a tradition of the Israelites to pray facing towards the land of Israel, the place where God’s presence dwells.

Solomon appears to reference Moses more often than he references David, which I find interesting. When the presence of God fills the temple, it reminds us of the presence filling the tabernacle of Moses. The ark (built by Moses) has the two tablets placed there by Moses. Towards the end of his prayer, Solomon twice references the exodus from Egypt (v. 51 and 53), and he twice references Moses himself (v. 53 and 56).

Perhaps Solomon, as he prays about a future exile from the promised land, had in his thoughts the previous “exile” when the people were condemned to wander for 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai, when a whole generation died without entering the promised land. Solomon is perhaps thinking of a future time when Israel would be once more driven out of the promised land and condemned to “wander” in foreign lands, living in slavery under a foreign power like when they were in Egypt, and he is hopeful that a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15) would emerge to lead the people into righteousness and back into the promised inheritance.

Solomon concludes by offering a gigantic heap of sacrifices over 14 days. I am amused by v. 64, because Solomon had just built this new, significantly larger bronze altar for sacrifices, and then he goes and offers so many sacrifices that even the larger altar can’t burn them as fast as his priests are butchering them, so they just consecrate an entire section of the courtyard and burn everything in what must have been an impressive pyre.

In the end, Solomon is happy, the people are happy, the animals are dead, but otherwise everyone is happy. This is certainly Israel’s golden age: everything in this chapter is optimistic, except perhaps for Solomon’s prayer when he says “there is no one who does not sin”. That part is grimly foreboding; but everything else about this chapter is happy and cheerful. David’s throne will endure forever, God’s presence is back, and the people are rejoicing. How could things go wrong from here?

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