1 Kings 8:22-30,41-43 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. 23 He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart, 24 the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand. 25 Therefore, O Lord, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, ‘There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.’ 26 Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! 28 Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; 29 that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. 30 Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.41 “Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name 42 —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.
God is everywhere. God is above us, around us, perhaps below us. Whether we feel that presence or not, we confess by faith that God is there. We call it omnipresence. If God is omnipresent, then why bother with buildings? Why not worship out in nature? Many people claim to do just that. In the story of Israel, it is said that God moved around with the people, dwelling in a tent. When the people finally settled down, David wanted to build a more permanent house for God. After all, David had a nice house. Shouldn’t God have one also? The word sent to David through Nathan the prophet was that no such request had ever been made by God (2 Samuel 7). God was fine with the tent! But, the Ark of the Covenant wouldn’t rest a tent forever. According to the story-line, the job of house-building would fall to his heir. Here in 1 Kings 8, David’s son and heir Solomon gets to dedicate that house, the temple of God. Apparently, God gave into the need of the people to have a more permanent space to approach God. Nonetheless, the question is, does God need a house?
When Solomon builds this house for God, Solomon is quite aware that God is bigger than any house, no matter how grand. In fact, heaven itself cannot contain God. Nonetheless, the Temple is built, and it serves as a sign of God’s presence with the people. The first lesson from the lectionary, continues the story of Solomon, the successor to David (his son by Bathsheba). In the previous week’s reading, Solomon succeeds his father, consolidates his power, and famously prays for wisdom— “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” God responds positively to this request (1 Kings 3:3-14). Having established his rule, Solomon has turned to building a house for God, the house promised to David, but which David would not build.
The question for us concerns not only the process of building Solomon’s Temple, but its meaning for today. There is a debate underway as to the spiritual value of church buildings. Why expend money on something like a building when that money could be used for other things. After all, many church buildings are used only a few days a week at most. Then there are debates as to the form of a building. What is its purpose? Is it designed to reflect the sacred, the sacramental, or is it more utilitarian? In the medieval period, churches great and small were built to remind the people of the sacred. Visit a cathedral in Europe, and you might stand in awe. These churches were often built, not in a day but over several centuries. I am in the process of writing a chapter of a book on sacred architecture during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Reading about these buildings, and the design purpose is illuminating. They were often designed both to tell stories and to reflect the tastes of their patrons. Then again, there are those plain style churches that marked New England, buildings that were designed not for sacraments but for preaching. The same is true today. Some build auditoriums that are no different than a concert hall. Perhaps lacking any symbolism, even a cross. Others may still desire to build sanctuaries that cry out the sacramental and the sacred. Preaching may be still central, but so might the Table. Still, the question remains as to whether God requires a building so that we might encounter God?
In Solomon’s prayer dedicating the Temple, he recognizes that God is bigger than the building. However, he also understands the power of the Temple as a sign of that presence. Solomon prays that God will be attentive to the prayers either offered within the Temple, or toward the Temple. Why? Because God has placed God’s name on that Temple. The name of God, in ancient Judaism, was sacred. It is why one should not take God’s name in vain (that means more than cussing). Jesus spoke of this—don’t swear by the Temple, which should give us pause about using the Bible as a device upon which we swear to tell the truth or fulfill an office (Matt. 5:33-37). So, be careful how you speak and pray, so that you do not take God’s name in vain.
Returning to Solomon’s prayer and the way in which we approach the sacred, what role does the building play? What role the furnishings? There is a move today for preachers to abandon the pulpit or replace the wooden or stone pulpit with a clear plastic one. It is said that such a move makes one more transparent or real. I wonder, however, if this move makes the preacher the focus rather than the word delivered. In other words, is not the pulpit more than a stand upon which we put our notes? Could it be that it is a reminder that the word spoken is not just that of the preacher, but is a sacred word? Thus, the pulpit is a sacred symbol. The same could be said about the Table. I’m all for understanding the Table as a gathering place rather than an altar. I believe that fits with Jesus’ institution. But it too provides a symbol of God’s presence. That does seem to fit with Solomon’s prayer. Solomon asks that God heed the prayers offered in or toward the Temple, for ours is a faith that has a material element to it. In fact, isn’t that the core Christian message? That the Word of God became incarnate, dwelling among us.
While the building doesn’t contain God, the building has a message to send. It may speak of the sacred. Or, it might suggest that church is more like a community gathering, with music and speaker. It’s religious, but not necessarily “sacred.”
We don’t have all of 1 Kings in front of us. Once again, the lectionary creators have abridged the conversation, with the focus on Solomon’s prayer. While not all the prayer is included, it is appropriate to note that the “foreigner” is mentioned. That word is especially poignant right now, when a nativist spirit has taken hold in the United States. Even Christians have embraced the fear of the other. Yet, here we have a prayer that offers welcome to the foreigner. This is a prayer asking God to bless the foreigner who comes to Jerusalem to pray. Heed this prayer, the people pray. God responds positively!
The question here is whether God needs a house. It appears that God may not need a house, but God has chosen to put God’s name on a house so that the people might have a tangential reminder of their connection with God. Thus, it helps us spiritually to have that tangible reminder, that a church building provides, especially one that is not completely utilitarian!
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.