We are studying 1 Kings 8:22-30 and up through verse 53 for Sunday. This is Solomon’s prayer on the occasion of the dedication of the first Temple in Jerusalem – the one we sometimes call Solomon’s Temple, since he was the one who built it. Here are my [belated, brief] notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is the third of four lessons in our curriculum on 1 Kings 8, the dedication of the first Temple in Jerusalem. (Earlier lessons concerned the first phase of the dedication ceremony, and Solomon’s speech before this prayer.) Next week we’ll wind up the chapter with Solomon’s concluding words of hope in God.
Consequently, what we’ve already learned about this narrative of 1 Kings, and about the occasion of the building of the first Temple, and about the context of this impressive dedication ceremony, will apply to our consideration of Solomon’s prayer as it is recorded here in 1 Kings, and in almost identical form in 2 Chronicles 6:12-42. We probably want to think of the book of Kings as intended to display a particular vision of the Israelite past, in which selected heroic figures (like King David) and selected memorable events (like the building and dedication of the Temple) stand out, and anchor a vision of Israel’s ideal relationship with YHWH. Kings will go on to display the obstacles to that relationship, too. Our text is one of the positive, high points in this picture, painted by “the Deuteronomist.”
Portions of this text, in particular verses 41-43 (“when a foreigner, comes and prays toward this house …”), show up as choices for one of the Sundays in the Season after Pentecost in Years B and C of the Revised Common Lectionary, so some of us might have heard this text once or twice in church.
CLOSER READING: In verse 22, Solomon stands “before the altar,” seemingly in a priestly position, that is, leading worship. This might surprise those of us who expect the roles of king and priest in ancient Israel to be entirely distinct; mostly, as far as we can tell from the Bible, they were; here, however, the king has clearly taken on some ritual responsibility, evidently as spokesperson for or leader of the nation.
When Solomon “spread out his hands,” it’s specifically an action of raising the palms of his hands, or his open hands – in a posture of receptivity, perhaps.
Verses 23-24 recapitulate as thanks to or praise of God the speech Solomon just gave in verses 15-21, again echoing the themes of promises kept and “my father David.” This turns immediately to a petition that God keep all the promises made to David, specifically the promise of a successor, in verses 25-26.
Verse 27 is beautiful (one of my favorite verses in the Bible):
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!
The word translated “contain” in other contexts often has the sense of “sustain” or “provide for.” It makes sense to use “contain” here, and yet it’s suggestive that this Temple, which is a place where sacrifices will be made, is implicitly referred to as a place that will not be able to “provide for” [feed] God. The sacrifices made in the Temple are not YHWH’s food, and YHWH certainly doesn’t depend upon them, regardless of how others in the ancient world might have thought of sacrifices. Quite the opposite – Israel depends on YHWH.
Verses 27-30, then, position the Temple not as “the dwelling place of God,” but as a kind of monument (“my name shall be there”) or focal point. The word translated “regard” in verse 28 is in many other contexts translated “turn;” it has the sense of “facing in a particular direction.” Solomon’s overall request is for God (in a strikingly anthropomorphic way, we might notice – giving God a face, eyes, and ears) to be paying attention to the prayers that are directed towards this Temple.
It may be significant that Solomon refers over and over again to the prayers made in the direction of the Temple (verses 28, 29, 30, 33, 35, 38, 42, 44, 47, 48, 49), and not to the sacrifices that would presumably be made along with the prayers, at least while the Temple was in operation … which raises, along with some of the other content of the prayer, the suspicion that this is a prayer remembered from the vantage point of a later time, when the Temple is no longer in operation.
Now that Solomon has asked that God’s face, eyes and ears will be turned in an attentive way towards this place, the petitions that follow repeatedly invoke the turning of people towards this place, which represents a turning towards God and God’s regard.
We might want to think about whether there is some logic to the order of the seven classes of petitioners in verses 31-53:
- disputing neighbors (one having sinned against another);
- Israel (having sinned against God) defeated in battle;
- Israel suffering from drought (having sinned against God);
- Israel suffering from famine or agricultural disaster (having sinned against God);
- a foreigner;
- God’s people facing an enemy;
- God’s people defeated and in captivity (having sinned against God);
That is, we could think about whether there is a progression, or a little bit of bookending (with petition 2 and 6 & 7, perhaps) going on here.
Verse 34 implies that the defeated people have been taken away from their land, since God is asked (seemingly prospectively) to bring them again to the land.
The main thing Solomon asks God to do is hear (verses 32, 34, 36, 39, 43, 45, 49, 52), and forgive (verses 34, 36, 39, 50). And then, forgiving, to take whatever action is appropriate: teaching people the right way to walk (36), presumably relieving whatever agricultural disaster God has sent to punish people and induce them to turn them back to God (39), maintaining the people’s cause against their enemies (45), and, in the longest and most detailed request, granting compassion so that their captors will also have compassion on God’s exiled people (50).
Solomon’s prayer assumes people will sin against one another and against God. Maybe a lot. But even if not a lot, he finally says explicitly “there is no one who does not sin” (v46).
If we assume that Solomon’s prayer articulates something important – that is, if we should understand Solomon to be asking for what matters most on this important occasion – then this prayer suggests that what matters most is for people to have a fixed point to “turn back” to. Sin shows up here as turning away, and as distance from God. The remedy for this lostness will be “turning” – in the direction of this house that bears God’s name, so that when people “turn” towards this Temple, they will [Solomon asks] meet God’s attentive and responsive face turned towards their turning.