When the disorderly succession that enthroned Solomon as the first monarch in ancient Israel to have received his crown by heredity had been sorted, the king’s power consolidated, and old offenses avenged, the first ‘son of David’ turned to matter his father had left pending. He built a house for YHWH.
Solomon does not underestimate his achievement:
Then Solomon said, ‘The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.’ (1 Kings 8:12–13 NRSV)
Yet there is something decidedly arbitrary about the attempt to enclose YHWH in a living space. Even the royal architect recognizes the essential vanity of his effort.
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! (1 Kings 8:27 NRSV)
Indeed, the priests who attempt to carry out their duties are disabled by YHWH’s glory-cloud, which fills the temple with overwhelming force just when they are about to minister to him.
And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD. (1 Kings 8:10–11 NRSV)
Still, the most insistent claim that YHWH will not be contained even in a house that is built for him and at his consent emerges in a prescriptive detail of Solomon’s long dedicatory prayer. In case after case of future need that Solomon envisages, Israel and even the foreigner whose desperation leads her to seek the favor of Jacob’s God will pray towards this temple. Yet Solomon’s plea is that YHWH should ‘hear from heaven your dwelling place’, not from this house that he has built for the Israel’s ever accessible Lord.
When the biblical tradition touches upon the matter of worship, it insists upon a dual reality rather than a simple fact. On the one hand, students of the text are taught to anticipate that YHWH will truly make himself present in the space where his dependents seek him. In the vocabulary of the New Testament, Jesus will occupy that space ‘where two or three are gathered in his name’. Drawing upon the tradition of YHWH’s presence in the tabernacle and its more permanent temple variant, the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel assures its readers that …
… the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Yet even as the human heart is shaped to anticipate the Lord’s arrival in ordinary spaces, so we are instructed not to expect that he will ever be contained there or reduced to it.
If we lose our capacity to note with confidence what the biblical language articulates by the expression that ‘the Lord appeared’ in this or that place, we become practical deists, having lost touch with the generous accompaniment of the God who is (t)here.
If we entertain the folly that by condescending to occupy our space in our moment he has come under our control, we fall nicely into rank with generations of idolaters.
Our worship, indeed, touches him. It must not grasp.