A Biblical Theology of God's Temple: The Presence of God at Jerusalem (Part 4)
Whereas in our last posting we examined God’s instruction at Mount Sinai to build a tabernacle so that his presence might go with Israel into the land of Canaan, this week we examine the way in which this mobile tabernacle ultimately became a full-fledged, permanent temple at Jerusalem. We will observe how this transition occurred, what similarities are shared between the temple and the tabernacle, and what specific advances to the overall theme of God’s presence within Scripture were brought about by the temple’s inception.
The construction of the temple is part of an important turning point in Israel’s history marked by several major events, the first of which are David’s coming to be king over all twelve tribes of Israel, his reclaiming of Jerusalem, and his establishing of this city as Israel’s capital (2 Sam 5:1-12). Following this, he quickly retrieves the Ark and pronounces Jerusalem as its permanent place of residence (2 Sam 6:1-15). Finally, God then makes a covenant with David promising that Israel will never lack a king from his line to rule after him to provide prosperity to the nation (2 Sam 7:1-29). These events together serve as a collective witness to the people that the period of conquest had finally come to an end and signify peace and stability to a previously nomadic Israel. This major shift then reaches its climax when Solomon commits to build a temple for the Lord according to his promise to David that his son after him would do so (1 Kgs 5:3-5; 2 Sam 7:12-13).
Solomon enlists the help of Hiram king of Tyre in order to build the new temple (1 Kgs 5:1-6). It contains all the same gold-laden priestly elements as the tabernacle—though enlarged and increasingly ornate—so that the services performed by the priests might continue according to what the Lord had instructed at Sinai. New additions are also added including, among other things, two large golden cherubim surrounding the Ark in the Most Holy Place, bronze pillars, folding wooden doors in place of curtains, and ten bronze wheeled stands with basins for the preparation of animal offerings. The finished product is roughly twice the size of its prototype and took seven years to construct (1 Kgs 6:1-38; 7:13-51).
Once the temple is finished, Solomon gathers the elders, tribal heads and leaders of households for a commissioning ceremony. After the priests remove the Ark from the tabernacle and place it within the temple in the Most Holy Place, the glory of the Lord fills the temple—again in the form of a cloud—signifying both his acceptance of it and the continuation of his presence among Israel (1 Kgs 8:1-11). Once again, God displays his enduring faithfulness to dwell together with his people.
Similar to the tabernacle, this newly created temple is dedicated in the remembrance of God’s rescuing of Israel in the Exodus and the subsequent covenant he made with them at Sinai (1 Kgs 8:21). Furthermore, it is once again clear in this episode that the future preservation of the temple at Jerusalem, and thus the nation of Israel’s unique privilege of being God’s people and enjoying the blessing of his presence, depends upon continued obedience to the Mosaic Law; turning away from God’s statutes and failing to keep covenant with him will result in the nation’s being accursed, cut off from the land, and cast out of the Lord’s sight (1 Kgs 9:4-9; cf. 8:25).
Notably, Solomon seems to view both the creation and preservation of the temple as extensions of the Davidic covenant that respectively symbolize its fulfillment and continued sustainment (1 Kgs 8:20, 24-26; 9:4-5). That is, Solomon’s vision of a Davidic king forever reigning on the throne of Israel necessarily implies also a place to house the Ark of the Covenant and for God’s presence to dwell.
At the temple’s commissioning, Solomon offers a prayer of dedication that draws clear lines of continuity with the tabernacle, but also advances the theology of God’s presence in new ways. One such advancement is the clear acknowledgment that the temple does not in any way limit God’s presence to its earthly location, but rather it is the place where his name is, where he has set his eyes and his heart (1 Kgs 8:27-30; 9:3). Though his dwelling is among Israel, God remains omnipresent.
Further, while entrance into the temple is still restricted to priests, Solomon’s descriptions of many of its functions are notably more inclusive. The new temple is to be a place of prayer whereby God’s people seek the Lord for justice and provision; here also they confess their sins, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation (1 Kgs 8:27-53). Solomon’s repeated plea that the Lord might “hear from heaven” the petitions of those who would come to the temple to worship him and seek him reflects this new orientation toward prayer. Thus, in a way, praises and petitions are a new sort of sacrifice which is to be offered at the temple, and not just by priests. Furthermore, the temple is also more inclusive in that it is a place of worship for all the nations where God might hear even the prayers of foreigners, so that, “all the people of the earth will come to know and fear [him]” (1 Kgs 8:43).
This new emphasis upon prayer signifies God’s intention that all of us should seek him personally and that we ought never to be content with a religion that is merely mediated to us by others. Moreover, God’s provision of the temple testifies that his ear is always inclined to hear the pleas and petitions of those who earnestly seek him and cry out for mercy and justice. Lastly, the invitation for people of all nations to come to the temple and worship God, in keeping with the Abrahamic promise (Gen 18:18), reminds us that his redemptive purpose is global in scope and that we ought to eagerly invite outsiders to come and behold God in our midst.
Finally, despite its consistent conviction that the Lord will uphold his promise to David, Solomon’s prayer at the temple dedication seems to ominously foretell a coming destruction and dispersion of Israel to a foreign land at a future time when they will turn away from the Lord and rebel against him (1 Kgs 8:46-51). That such a fate is imminent for Israel is also suggested by the account that follows concerning Solomon’s personal conduct as king which directly mirrors the warning and threat of punishment that God issued after the temple’s dedication: “He did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done” (1 Kgs 11:6; cf. 9:4-5). However, Solomon’s prediction of a future judgment of Israel also carries with it the hope that God will restore his exiled people to the land on the day when they repent and turn toward the temple in prayer to seek forgiveness (1 Kgs 8:47-50).
Up Next: Considering from this week the immense significance of Jerusalem, its temple, and the Davidic Kingship as enduring symbols of God’s commitment to Israel, it is hard for us to even imagine how devastating it was for the Jewish people when King Nebuchadnezzar overtook Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and took the people into exile. More than a mere political defeat, these events raised agonizing spiritual questions regarding Israel and the fate of her people, most pointedly, “Has God abandoned us?” In asking these difficult questions together with the exiled Jews and OT Prophets, we will begin to see how God remained faithful to his people in the exile and to understand that, in his wisdom, these tragic events paved the way for the coming of an altogether superior salvation, the arrival of his eternal Son.
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