Friday, August 19, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 6

In this chapter, Solomon dedicates the temple with a prayer.

This is a fairly long chapter and it has a lot of material.  Even though there is considerable overlap with 1 Kings 8 (which I previously discussed here), I think it's important enough to the Chronicles narrative that I want to take a more detailed look here.

This chapter has two main sections.  In the first section (verses 1-11), Solomon addresses the gathered people of Israel who have come for the dedication.  In the second section (12-42), Solomon prays to the LORD on behalf of the people and on behalf of the temple.

The first section contains Solomon's statement of intent.  It explains why he built the temple, giving several reasons.  Solomon begins in verses 1-2, explaining that the LORD will "dwell in a dark cloud" and that he built a temple for the LORD to dwell forever.  I'm not sure if there is a connection between these two points.  Certainly the "dark cloud" metaphor is present in other places in the bible.  For instance, Deuteronomy 4:11 says that Mount Sinai was covered "with black clouds and deep darkness", which accompanied the LORD's presence when he met with Moses.  Deut 5:22 says essentially the same thing, and 2 Samuel 22:12 (which is part of a Psalm of David) says that the LORD "made darkness his canopy", which in context means that the LORD descended to the earth in the midst of a thunderstorm.  I think this is possibly connected to the temple in the sense of concealment; the temple helps to enclose the LORD's presence so that his holiness might be hidden from us.

Now, my readers may be wondering why the LORD would seek to conceal his presence.  One might suppose that the LORD wishes to be dwell amongst his people, seeing them and being seen by them, so that he might have fellowship with them in a more direct way.  If the LORD is dwelling in darkness and clouds, or hidden away in the holy place of a temple that is excluded to 99% of Israel's populace, then in some sense it feels like the LORD is trying to make himself inaccessible to his people.  To a person who is seeking God, it may be frustrating that God would conceal himself.  We may even question the LORD's intentions and wonder if he is trying to make us fail in our pursuit of him.

The LORD is indeed seeking to conceal himself, but he explains the reason why in Exodus 33:18-23.  In that passage, Moses is in the midst of a powerful encounter with the LORD.  Moses is on Mount Sinai, having just received the ten commandments and the orders for the construction of the tabernacle.  He is surrounded by fire, clouds and earthquakes, and he has secured the LORD's presence in their journey to the promised land.  In this moment, Moses asks for an even greater thing, to behold the glory of the LORD.  The LORD grants his request, but with one major exception: Moses is not permitted to see God's face, "for no one may see me and live".  This is the first point: God's glory must be concealed because anyone who is not properly sanctified would be harmed by God's glory.

I think this is a really important point and I hardly have the time to fully address it.  In many places, God is called an "all consuming fire".  Fire can burn and destroy many things, and in the same way God's glory will destroy unprepared people.  One similar example is Exodus 28:35.  Aaron must wear this particular vest when he enters the holy place, "so that he will not die".  Exodus 30:20 explains that the priests should wash before they enter the holy place "so that they will not die".  There is a remarkable list of things the priests needed to do to enter the holy place and not die.  Imagine if that presence were everywhere?  People everywhere, who were not consecrated and holy, would have been swept away.  We must be consecrated before we can enter the LORD's presence, and the process for how to become consecrated is laid out in the bible as well.  It is possible for everyone, because God really does want to be with his people, but it is not instant and it's not cheap either.  However, explaining the process of sanctification is beyond the scope of my commentary here so I will move on.

Solomon gives several other reasons he is building the temple.  Solomon basically says that the LORD made two promises to David: to establish David's place on the throne of Israel and that his son would build the temple in Jerusalem.  Therefore in verse 10, Solomon claims that both his own reign and the construction of the temple are fulfillments of the LORD's promises.  Even though Solomon was the man building the temple, he says that the LORD was the one bringing it about, in accordance with his promise to David.  Not only was it in fulfillment of a divine command, building the temple was also empowered and overseen by the LORD who "chose" it to happen (v. 6).  Later, in verse 15, Solomon says "with your hand you have fulfilled it", referring to his promises to David.  One could reasonably argue that includes building the temple as part of what the LORD "fulfilled".

That concludes the first section.

In the second section, Solomon kneels upon this peculiar "bronze platform" and prays for the temple (v. 13).  This bronze platform is not mentioned in 1 Kings 8, and it's not clear to me why this is only mentioned in Chronicles.

I think some of the symbolism here is interesting.  Solomon kneels and "spreads out his hands towards heaven" (v. 13).  I just think it's so cool that people would raise their hands in prayer over 2,600 years ago.  This image, of kneeling before the LORD in honor and raising one's hands in surrender, is still with us to this very day.

Afterwards, Solomon begins his prayer by reciting God's promise to David, and then he goes on to describe what is his understanding of the temple's purpose.  Surprisingly, he doesn't talk at all about sacrifices or offerings, or any of the other common priestly functions in the temple.  He doesn't say, "LORD, please regard the incense and consecrated bread, and the perpetual fire before you."  Nearly the entirety of what Solomon asks is for the LORD to have regard towards prayers of mercy.

Starting in verse 19, Solomon asks the LORD to "have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his supplication... when they pray toward this place".  The basic structure is for people to pray directed towards the temple, and then the LORD would hear from heaven and forgive [the sins that the people are praying about].

In verse 22, Solomon adds a justice element.  When two people are in disagreement and one of them has sinned, both are to come and take an oath upon the altar and then the LORD will judge between them, striking down the wicked and upholding the innocent.  I see this as quite similar to the role that Moses and the priests are supposed to fulfill, since in many other places it is written that the priests would judge over disputes amongst the people.  It appears that in the same way, the LORD was expected to judge between disputes, perhaps the very serious or unclear disputes that the priests could not resolve.

In verse 24-31, Solomon lists several different kinds of curses that would fall on the people "because they have sinned against you", and asks that when the people repent and "pray toward this place" that the LORD would forgive and heal whatever is afflicting them.  It is troubling imagery when the primary relationship that Solomon can envisage between Israel and God is for God to be smiting Israel while Israel is alternately sinning or repenting.  And this is supposed to be Israel's golden age, too.

Verses 32-35 have two additional categories of prayer (foreigners and prayer for victory in battle), but verses 36-39 have the grand finale: when Israel sins and are exiled from their homeland, they are to pray towards their homeland, city and the temple, and then the LORD will forgive and "maintain their cause", whatever that means.

Solomon concludes in verses 41-42 with part of a Psalm of David, which is a modification compared to 1 Kings 8.  In the book of Kings, Solomon concludes by extending his prayer (from v. 36-39) with references to Israel's deliverance from Egypt, perhaps as an archetype for Israel's deliverance from future captivity.  In this case, the Chronicler wished to change the focus towards God's eternal promise to David's house, which may be part of Chronicles larger theme of David as an ideal ruler.

In any case, this has already gotten really long so I will stop here, but I would like to end by encouraging my readers to focus on the different purposes that Solomon imagined for the temple and the different kinds of prayer that he anticipated.  When you look at your own relationship with God, consider what kind of dedication you would pray towards the temple in your own life.  Is it characterized by sinning and repenting, like the Israelites, or something else?

In the next chapter, the dedication of the temple concludes with the LORD's dramatic appearance.

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