What’s Wrong with the Temple?

19 10 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I preached John 1:14, looking back at God’s gift of the tabernacle and Solomon’s construction of the temple in order to answer the question: How does God dwell with his people? The tabernacle and the temple are key aspects of any Theology of Worship study (or should be), and as Solomon’s building of the temple is an especially fascinating passage, especially when combined with John 1, I decided it merited a blog post (how arrogant does that sound?!), especially considering the implications these passages have for the church.

Retelling the Story

When Israel was wandering in the desert, God graciously handed Moses the design of a tent in which he promised to dwell with his people – in the center of the camp. It was a visible way in which God made it abundantly and graciously clear that he was with his people.

Time goes on, and Israel finally manages to occupy the land God has given them. In 2 Samuel 7 we see David sitting cosily in his palace, after a life of fighting. As he reclines on his throne, he has a qualm of conscience and says to God’s prophet, Nathan: “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” Nathan says (basically) “Good point!” But then God comes to Nathan at night with this message for David:

Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (2 Samuel 7:5­-7)

God denies David’s request to build him a house – instead, he offers to build David’s house:

The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:11-16)

So we arrive in 1 Kings 5-9 in which Solomon, David’s “own flesh and blood” proceeds with the building of the temple. Here the subtle language of the text begins to cue us in to the fact that something is wrong.

The First Hmmm

In 1 Kings 2 David, on his deathbed, reminds Solomon of God’s promise, but the unconditional fatherly promise given in 2 Samuel reads more like a conditional warning here:

If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel. (1 Kings 2:3-4, emphasis mine)

Suddenly a big “IF” is inserted into God’s seemingly unconditional promise in 2 Samuel. This is a tension that will be played out throughout the rest of 1 and 2 Kings, and certainly as we continue to work through Solomon’s building of the temple.

The Second Hmmm

Solomon starts out well enough. He asks for wisdom that he might reign well over Israel. God is pleased and grants him not only wisdom, but also wealth and power. And, at first, we see that Solomon’s wisdom, wealth, and power result in a people that “ate, drank, and were happy” (1 Kings 4:20). We get stories of his wise rulings, and his scientific discoveries (1 Kings 3 and 5). He is portrayed as a wise and good king.

But, as Solomon begins his preparations for the temple, you begin to get the impression he thinks he’s pretty important. This impression is confirmed when, between the building of the temple and its furnishing and dedication, you read an interesting little insertion about Solomon building his palace. (Right in the middle in Hebrew text often indicates something to which we should be paying close attention.) This insertion is absolutely brilliantly worded – and the transition is money.

…the temple was finished in all its details according to is specifications. [Solomon] had spent seven years building it. It took Solomon thirteen years, however, to complete the construction of his palace.” (1 Kings 6:38-7:1)

The emphasis in the text is mine – but the structure of the Hebrew certainly suggests it. This is where we really start to wonder if Solomon has his priorities in line.

The Third Hmmm

God’s response to the dedication of the temple highlights the shaky ground on which Solomon and the kingdom of Israel are standing – the blinking “IF” that David inserted into God’s promise. God appears to Solomon in 1 Kings 9: 3-9. If you read this text, you’ll discover that it doesn’t sound like much of a “thank you.” It doesn’t sound like much of a blessing. Instead, it is a harsh and dire warning. God is essentially saying: “Well Solomon, if you have to have a temple, fine. I’ll be there. But this is not going to go very well.”

The Result of Hmmm-ing

And, of course, we know that despite all the warnings Solomon fails miserably. Very shortly after the temple’s dedication we read that Solomon used forced labour for all his building, including the temple. We read of his shady business deal with Hiram, king of Tyre; of his excesses in wealth (now portrayed as luxuries, rather than food – and as benefitting the court rather than the people); and, finally, we read of his 700 wives and 300 concubines (all from other nations) and of the temples he built for their gods. And we read of Solomon going to worship in those temples. That “IF” is blinking pretty hard by this time.

The Final and Perhaps Most Interesting Hmmm

Before we move on to the implications of this, however, I want to draw your attention to one final shift in language. In 2 Samuel 7, God says to David “Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in…. I have been moving about from place to place with a tent as my dwelling.” But when God talks about David’s offspring building a temple, it very clear that the temple will house only God’s name. There is never any mention made of God dwelling in the temple as he did in the tabernacle. This language is repeated in David’s warning to Solomon, in Solomon’s long-winded dedication, and especially in God’s response to the dedication of the temple: “I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there” (1 Kings 9:3).

It is very clear that, while God promises to bless the temple and pay attention to it, he does not promise that he will dwell there as he did in the tabernacle.

I’ve spent considerable time wondering what this shift in language means, and this is what I’ve come up with: the main difference between the tabernacle and the temple is that one moves, and one doesn’t. That’s the conclusion to which my brilliant logic has brought me.

When God responds to David’s desire to build a temple in 2 Samuel 7:6-7 he states:

I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar? (emphasis mine)

Why specify all the Israelites. Wouldn’t it be safe to assume that “the Israelites” already refers to all of them? I think the author is using intentional redundancy here for emphasis. In the tabernacle, God dwelt with all his people, moving with them from place to place. Now, as Israel spreads out to occupy the land, and as a permanent temple structure is built in Jerusalem, it is no longer possible for God to be seen to dwell with all his people in one location. Is it possible that the text is subtly stating that God’s place is with the whole of his people, rather than in one specific location – rather than in the seat of power?

The HMMMs of 1 and 2 Kings leave us, I think, with two essential questions: will there ever be a king in the line of David who can fulfill God’s requirement of righteousness; and will God dwell again with his people?

Cue John 1:14

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew text, the Septuagint, uses two words to translate the Hebrew Mishkahn. When it is in noun form, it’s translated as skaynay (tent/tabernacle), while the verb form is translated kahtoikayoh (to dwell). In the Greek of John 1:14, then, where a verbal form is warranted, we would expect the Greek word kahtoikayoh (to dwell). Indeed, that is generally how it is translated in English. Instead, the author of John uses the Greek noun form: skaynay. So “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” could be translated as “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” He pitched his tent among us.

I think there is an intentional contrast to the temple happening in this passage. It’s not the only thing that’s happening in the text, but I think it’s there. The contrast is emphasized by the fact that Jesus is continually on the move, throughout the book of John. Almost every chapter has Jesus moving to another place: from Bethany to Cana to Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to Galilee… (and that’s just chapters 1-4). There’s a reason that John uses the noun “tent” rather than the simple static verb “to dwell.”

What was the main difference between a tabernacle (a tent) and a temple again?

God will not be nailed down to one place or to one specific segment of his people. He does not sit still and wait for his people to come to him. When Jesus claims, in John 2, that he is the temple (and note how closely this follows “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us”) he’s announcing his death and resurrection – but that’s not all he’s doing. He’s saying that he is the place where God dwells – but that’s not all he’s saying. He’s also proclaiming that his people, his whole people, all his people, have access to him again. Because he’s not waiting for us to come to him – he’s coming out to meet us. He’s travelling with us. He’s putting his tent down right next to ours.

So what does this mean for how we worship him? What are the implications of this amazing truth for your church?

It means that we cannot claim God simply for ourselves. The “God’s with us, but not with those other guys who call themselves Christians” mentality simply will not work. We don’t have a corner on the God-market – no matter how right we might think we are, and no matter how wrong we think the other guys are. This does not mean that all truth is relative. It does not mean we never use judgement, and that we accept every idea and method blindly. It does mean that we must err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion.

The bigger implication, however, is that the church cannot stand still. There were two questions from Kings to answer: would there be a king fit to rule eternally, and would God once again dwell with his people? In Jesus, both questions are answered. He is able not only to inaugurate the eternal kingdom, but also to build a temple in which God can again dwell with his people.

1 Corinthians 3 tells us that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We, the body of Christ, are now the place in which God dwells with his people – all his people – everywhere. It is not enough for us to sit within the doors of the permanent structures we have set up and assume that people will come to us if they want to seek God. This is not the way Jesus functions, and nor is it the way we should function. Sometimes we get so tied up in our buildings that, like Solomon, we forget the point – and our building becomes our idol. God is not against buildings. But he is against sitting still. Worship of God is not limited to church buildings – true lives of worship should extend outside of our buildings into every aspect of life. If people are to meet God in this time, and in whatever place your congregation inhabits – the temple of God must be on the move – it must be a tabernacle, not a temple.