Solomon Builds The Temple audio (4MB)
You could be forgiven for thinking that a report of the Building Committee has been substituted for today’s reading by mistake. To most of our ears today's reading from 1 Kings sounds like a technical report; dull and boring for everyone except the people who do that sort of thing for a living. And it's probably the last thing in the Bible you want to hear a sermon about – except perhaps the genealogies: "Abraham was the father of Isaac" and so on. If you are like me, in this area a picture speaks a thousand words, so hear are a few I pictures I prepared earlier. Well actually biblical archaeologists had them prepared but I'll show them to you anyway. The site of Solomon's temple had been successively destroyed and rebuilt so we have no archaeological remains. But based upon the description in the Bible and comparisons with the remains of other temples from the ancient Middle East we can say that it looked something like this (slides not included, see under “Temple” in a Bible dictionary).
Ancient temples were not places for worshippers to go into – they were too small. Where we read in our English translations the word "temple", the original Hebrew language has "house". Temples were literally a "house" for the gods to live in. The famous temple of Solomon was no cathedral. From our perspective it was not much more than a chapel measuring about 90 feet (or 27 metres) long by 30 feet (9 metres) wide. That is, about 240 square metres in total (Note: in the reading a cubit = approximately 18 inches or 0.5 metres). How does this compare with our own buildings? Geoff might correct me but by my rough calculations the space we gathered in here at Station Street/Broughton Rd is about 170-180 square metres.
So what? We know that it is important that our architect get the details of the new building right or it might fall in on our heads! But what does is matter how the Temple of God built in the reign of King Solomon nearly 3000 years ago was built? I want to draw our attention to just one feature of the description of Solomon's temple. Verse 7 says:
"The house [= temple] was built with stone finished at the quarry, so that neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron was heard in the temple while it was being built."
Why in the middle of all these construction details does the author specifically mention that tools made from iron were not used? The short answer is that the Law of Moses prohibited the use of iron tools for the making of altars:
Exodus 20:25: "But if you make an altar of stone, do not build it of cut stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it."
Deuteronomy 27:5: "And [when you have crossed the Jordan into the promised land] you shall build an altar there to the Lord your God, an altar of stones on which you have not used an iron tool. You build the altar of the Lord your God of whole (= uncut) stones."
OK. But why were iron tools banned? You certainly can't say it was the latest fashion. This was the middle of what we now call the "Iron Age" – iron was state-of-the-art technology in those days! So why does the author of 1 Kings stress the absence of iron tools from the temple construction? Were the Jews old fashioned technophobes...? It comes back, doesn't it, to the second of the Ten Commandments:
Exodus 20:4-5: "You shall not make for yourself an idol (= a hand-crafted image of a god), whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them..."
The author of Kings is making it clear that the temple was built in accordance with the most important building regulation of all: the law prohibiting using iron in constructing the altar was to make sure they didn't make something that might be worshipped as an idol. There was some decoration allowed around the building but not the altar which was at the centre of sacrificial worship.
Mel and I are reading through Exodus in our devotions and just this week we read in Exodus chapter 32 where Moses was up the mountain getting the Ten Commandments, including, of course, the second commandment prohibiting the worship of idols. At the very same time, down on the plain, the people decided that he was taking a bit too long and so they replaced the living God with a metal god – the golden calf.
Exodus 32:3-4: "So all the people took off their ear-rings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt'."
God knows how easily human worship slips into idolatry. Israel's God was different and Israel's worship needed to reflect that difference. God was not a lifeless idol made of stone but the living God who had rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. God doesn't need any images; God doesn't even need a "house"! A couple of chapters later in 1 Kings (next week’s reading) Solomon asks God: "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and earth cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!" (1 Kings 8:27). And in the New Testament we find this same point made in Stephen's speech before the Jewish council in Acts 7:
"Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him.
Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says,
'Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?' "
This raises an interesting question for us as we are about to build a place to gather as God's people – what should our attitude be to our new building? So should we be saying to our Building Committee: do whatever you like, just don't use any iron tools! I expect that in that case we might have a bit of trouble getting contractors to work on the project! Should we be building it at all? My answer is, "Yes", if metaphorically speaking, rather than literally, we don't use iron tools. It is still important that we don't make material images of God which we put in our homes or in our church buildings. I don't think God cares if we use iron tools today, but God does care that we don't let any material thing, including the buildings the church uses, either take God's place or distort our understanding of God. Our God is different and everything to do and indeed everything we build and our attitude to those things must be different!
Living after Jesus once-for-all sacrifice, we are not building a temple – we ourselves already are "the temple of the Holy Spirit", as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6. Or to put it another way, we are "the body of Christ", as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12 (see also 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 2 Corinthians 6:16). God doesn't live in our buildings – God lives in us! God doesn't need our buildings – God has chosen people to serve him, not buildings! But buildings are important resources. Most of us would I think agree with this in principle but the effect of these things on our understanding of God and of our relationship to God is often very subtle.
Let me give one example which I think might make the point. When I was working with university students at Ridley College a retired missionary came to visit me. He told me I was living in the flat he and his wife had lived in while they were theological college students. He was Ridley College graduate and a very committed Evangelical Christian. We had a cup of coffee together and I heard something of his faithful service as a missionary in Africa for many years, often in difficult circumstances. In the course of our conversation he asked me when the students now had their chapel service. I told him the time but indicated that the students had now chosen to meet in a common room because it was a more public space, and a neutral territory it was easier for them to invite their friends along. Now this man was someone who had run services under trees and in bark huts and in the middle of the desert in Africa. But back in Australia he seemed to find it very difficult to do the same thing when the circumstances suggested that it was the best thing to do. As tried to explain the student’s reason for their decision, he kept saying, "I just think it's a shame to waste such a nice chapel". I don’t say this to criticise a very faithful Christian missionary. No doubt others wouldn’t have to look too hard to find some inconsistencies in my Christian life. I mention it to illustrate how easy it is for things to become more important to us than ministry, which, of course, means more important than people. I suspect that the students had the right perspective on things in this case. It’s a bit like Jesus’ meeting with Martha and Mary (in Luke 10:38-42). Jesus doesn’t tell Martha not to give her guests a meal or not to bother doing the dishes afterwards. But he does tell her relationship with him must take priority even over those important tasks.
Perhaps the timing of this reading from 1 Kings is significant. I don’t think it is saying that we shouldn’t commit passionately to our building project, understanding the importance of using all our resources, buildings included, wisely to assist us in our gospel ministry. Exactly the opposite! But rather this reading suggests that we need to maintain our perspective so that building a new building does not subtly become our ministry, but rather that it serves the gospel purposes of God.
Did you notice that there’s a prophecy in the middle of today’s building report? It’s easy too overlook it amongst all the constructions details. In verses 11-13 Solomon receives a prophecy. We don’t usually think of Solomon as prophet but notice the expression, "The word of the Lord came to Solomon", found often in the books of the prophets (for example, Isaiah 38:4; Jeremiah 1:4; Ezekiel 13:1). In this prophecy there is no mention of the grandeur of the temple decoration or even of the sacrifices that will take place within the temple. Instead the prophecy focuses on Solomon's walk with God. Let me conclude with the words of this prophecy:
"Now the word of the LORD came to Solomon, 'Concerning this house that you are building, if you will walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances, and keep all my commandments by walking in them, then I will establish my promise with you, which I made to your father David. I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel'." (1 Kings 6:11-13)