Solomon, Temple-builder, says: "Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?" (2 Chronicles 1.10).
I love that story! God responds, "Wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, riches and honor, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have" (verse 12). It's like the rule on the Price is Right, when someone guesses the correct price of the Showcase Showdown and wins both showcases.
What I hadn't realized until I began this series was the location of the dream. It isn't in Jerusalem or upon Mount Moriah, the site of the Temple. Solomon actually interacts with God near the old Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle ordained by God through Moses, where Solomon had traveled to worship at the altar. The gilded box was in Jerusalem, the tent and the altar were in Gibeon--and that's where Solomon met God the first time.
Worship is about meeting with God. The ultimate worship experience comes when God speaks back--when He inspires me in return. In his charmed life, Solomon would worship twice. The initial experience happened not in a temple but near a tent, not in Jerusalem but in Gibeon.
But it is easy to get lost in the stories of Solomon, who is among the most fabled ancient rulers of the Near East. In story, he is as legendary as Midas of Phrygia or Croesus of Lydia, but the chronicler provides us with enough details to look beyond the myth and provide Bible readers with a glimpse of the truly back-breaking cost of the Temple that Solomon erected.
Here is a sampling of the legends that grew up around Solomon. It is written that God gave Solomon many forms of wisdom, including the ability to interpret the speech of animals. He only realized this when he heard an ant telling its friends, "Get out of the way before Solomon steps on us!"
He could also summon angels--known as jinn, the word from which we get the term "genie"--to do his bidding. As he built the temple, he could summon winds, molten brass bubbled up from the rocks, and the angels followed his orders. "[The angels] worked for him as he desired, making high rooms, images, basins as large as reservoirs, and cauldrons," the legends state.
(And if these stories seem far-fetched, my dear reader, they actually come from the Koran, Surah 26 and Surah 34.)
The Bible Story
Solomon's story is told through the eyes of two authors in the books of 1 Kings (chapters 1-10) and 2 Chronicles (1-9). Therein I find no mention of genies or communication with insects but a fascinating view of the economic and political environment that supported Solomon's building spree.
The Chronicler reveals that Solomon the Dreamer left the Tent of Meeting, and in his next act as king he...acquired 1400 chariots and 12,000 horses (2 Chronicles 1.14). Moreover, he "made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees" (15).
What? Wasn't Solomon supposed to build the Temple because he wasn't a warrior like his father, David? Why the arms build-up? This doesn't mesh with the fables or the ideal of the pious king seeking after wisdom.
The answer is found in Verse 17: Solomon was actually an arms dealer, using his geopolitical situation to import weapons from Egypt and sell them to the Hittites (modern Turkey) and Arameans (Syria). All this wheeling and dealing among the superpowers of the day was lucrative indeed, and Solomon's close ties to Egypt are among the most significant, unwritten aspects to his long reign.
The import/export business wasn't enough to fund Solomon's expensive tastes. He sent to Hiram of Tyre for skilled workers and supplies to augment the ones already set aside by David. We find in 2 Chronicles 2 the outlines of the contract in a letter from Hiram, King of Tyre:
Now let my lord send his servants the wheat and barley and the olive oil and wine he promised, and we will cut all the logs from Lebanon that you need and will float them in rafts by sea down to Joppa. You can then take them up to Jerusalem (verses 15-16).
Of course labor on a seven-year building project like the Temple would have cost even more than the materials, no matter how precious. Solomon solved this by enslaving the Canaanites who remained within the borders of his kingdom--153,600 in all--to complete the building (verses 17-18).
This fact adds new ironies to the Temple Story. The hands that cut the stones and set the blocks of the Temple were not Jewish hands but Jebusite (the original residents of Jerusalem); the voices that cried out under oppression were not Jewish but Perizzite or Amorite. The nation that God had called out of Egypt--where it was enslaved to construct temples to foreign gods--had now enslaved foreign peoples to build a temple for its God. The moral decay of Israel--indeed of Solomon himself--began long before the first Psalm could be chanted within the Temple courts.
A Splendid Temple
But oh what a Temple it was! It's possible to ignore the squalor, the slavery, the shady arms deals, when we think about that wonderful structure. The chronicler takes us through the temple--even into the Most Holy Place--for a first-hand look at the extravagant decorations. The walls were inlaid with images of palm trees and winged cherubim--and those images were coated with gold (a tablet from Solomon's era--right). In the Most Holy Place, two giant cherubim shaded the sacred ark and its modest figures, stationed on the box at the time of the Exodus. It is written that 600 talents (23 tons) of solid gold were used in the Most Holy Place alone (2 Chronicles 3.8)
Perhaps the online application, Wordle, allows us to enjoy the words of the chronicler in 2 Chronicles 3 and 4. The size of words is based upon the number of times they are used in the passage. Words like "gold" and "temple" loom large, and the word, "cubits," alludes to the precise measurements given by the chronicler.
And when the Temple was done, there was worship. A throng of musicians stood on the eastern side of the altar, praising God with cymbals, harps, lyres and trumpets. Singers rejoiced: "He is good; his love endures forever" (2 Chronicles 5.12-13). And God responded to this worship with utter brilliance:
"The the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God" (13-14).
Solomon the Wise began his prayer with a rhetorical question.
"But will God really dwell on earth with men? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!" (2 Chronicles 6.18)
This is such a profound question that touches on so many theological points, that it would take books to mention them all. I will just point out two:
- I could rewrite the question using a name popular with Christians: "But will God really Emmanuel?" The idea of God dwelling with man went back to the Garden of Eden, and it wouldn't be resolved until the Incarnation.
- (Since mine is an anti-temple rant, I could point out here that John writes, "The Word came down and Tabernacled/tented with us." I have an idea why the most anti-temple writer of the New Testament would use this phrase, but it is interesting to point out here.)
- Solomon is also pointing to a definition of God--boundless, omnipotent, One--that won't really get fleshed out until the prophets just prior to and following the Exile. Basically, he's Ezekiel here.
- (What is your take on the second question, "How much less this temple I have built!"? Is this arrogance or humility? It seems to have a measure of both.)
Solomon looks into the future to see a Temple that will be the center of Jewish worship: one toward which both believers and nonbelievers will pray when they seek God's favor; a place where people will go to have their prayers heard; a place where sinners will find forgiveness (verses 20-23, 32-33).
But his is a national vision as well: the Temple is the place where wars will be won (34-35), famines will be ended (26-31), and rains will return (26-27). Solomon dreams--he dreams that he has built a Capitol from which God will govern human hearts. It will take a greater dreamer--Jesus Christ--to demonstrate that the individual human heart itself is the capitol God most desires.
God Answers Solomon
After Solomon's dedication, there was more song, more praise, and more fire. No one could bear to be inside the Temple, but this time the fire "consumed the burnt offerings and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple" (2 Chronicles 7.1). The celebration continued for a total of two weeks.
A few nights later, God appeared to Solomon a second time. Solomon had raised the stakes with this building; God raised them back. God had heard, but he would be watching. His words to Solomon would seem to have two warnings for every blessing:
As for you, if you walk before me as David your father did, and do all I command, and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father when I said, 'You shall never fail to have a man to rule over Israel.''But if you turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot Israel from my land, which I have given them, and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. I will make it a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. And though this temple is now so imposing, all who pass by will be appalled and say, 'Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?' People will answer, 'Because they have forsaken the Lord, the God of their fathers, who brought them out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them--that is why he brought all this disaster on them.' (verses 17-22).
This doesn't sound optimistic to me. It is as if God already knows the future, sees the idolatry. Or maybe that's just the chronicler--who will go on to describe the sad history that would follow.
An Aerial View of Jerusalem
Let's step back from the Most Holy Place to look at the City of David as it was in Solomon's day. Solomon's building project had doubled the size of the walled city, and the temple complex covered a wind-blown threshing floor that had been outside the gates of the city that David conquered.
As I look at the Temple in my minds eye, the first thing I notice are the two, bronze pillars that stood on each side of the main door. Each had its own name: one was Jakin (he establishes) and Boaz (in him is strength). They didn't support a roof; they just stood there, but how they must have shone as the rising sun rested upon them!
The temple occupied the highest ground in the city, but it was not the largest building by far. Solomon build three adjoining palaces: The Palace of the Forest of Lebanon, surrounded by wooden pillars, was almost twice as big as the Temple and held Solomon's armory and Hall of Justice. It also took twice as long to build. While the outer walls of this palace featured enough cedar trunks to resemble a hillside forest in Lebanon, the inner walls were lined with elaborate golden shields. Solomon ordered 200 large shields covered with gold (about seven pounds each), and 300 smaller shields which featured a mere four pounds of gold. (With today's gold prices, each of these large shields would be worth $114,000!)
Beyond the temple and armory, 1 Kings implies that there were two more huge, 5,000-square-foot palaces. The temple complex seems so choked with royal palaces that some historians have gone so far to speculate that the the Temple was a royal worship place rather than a national one.
Government Debt, Moral Decay
Solomon kept building. By the time the temple & palace complexes were finished, Solomon had begun building an astonishing harem of foreign wifes, each of which demanded a temple for her own god. The Mount of Olives became the site for this new wave of building, and it featured temples to Chemosh of Moab, Molech of Ammon and various other gods (1 Kings 11.7-8).
In some ways, Solomon didn't have a choice. He had become a regional leader. At the time he took power, Israel was a small kingdom, based in the hills around the Jordan River. Solomon pushed the kingdom westward, toward the Mediterranean Coast, by building up the cities of Joppa and Beth Horan, acquiring the town of Gezer from the Egyptian Pharaoh.
He also moved southward. His most significant conquest was Ezion Geber, which lay at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. His control of Joppa and Ezion Geber meant that all the land routes to Egypt passed through his dominions. The tariff revenue must have been incredible, for Egypt was a superpower, and this made Solomon's arms dealing even more valuable. With these trade routes under his control, the Queen of Sheba's visit takes on new meaning, and one can understand why cedar, gold and silver would have been common in Jerusalem.
Egypt responded in various ways. Pharaoh gave a daughter to Solomon and with her the city of Gezer (which had been captured from the Philistines--perhaps in a joint campaign with Israel). But the Bible shows that Pharaoh's daughter began a cultural conquest of Solomon that would gain her a palace of her own and a temple for her gods on the Mount of Olives.
But Egypt also hedged its bets. It became a safe place of exile for Solomon's enemies, who included Jeroboam (future ruler of the northern ten tribes) and Hadad the Edomite (1 Kings 11.18-19, 40). This doesn't seem like the behavior of a strong ally.
More fascinating is Solomon's relations with Hiram, king of Tyre, the source of the cedar and skilled workmen that built the temples and palaces. Solomon seems to act as a vassal king to Hiram, not as an equal.
The reason was probably debt.
First Kings describes an interesting exchange that took place midway through Solomon's rule:
At the end of twenty years, during which Solomon built these two buildings--the temple of the Lord and the royal palace--King Solomon gave twenty towns in Galilee to Hiram, king of Tyre, because Hiram had supplied him with all the cedar and pine and gold he wanted. But when Hiram went from Tyre to see the towns that Solomon had given him, he was not pleased with them. "What kind of towns are these you have given me, my brother?" he asked. And he called them the Land of Cabul (good-for-nothing), a name they have to this day" (1 Kings 9.10-14).
In Jerusalem, "Nothing was made of silver, because silver was considered of little value in Solomon's days," but in the hinterlands, the appalling level of public debt was beginning to peel away cities from Solomon's empire (1 Kings 10.21).
Hiram would also have his own hand in the economy of Israel. His sailors and captains would man the ships Solomon built at Ezion Geber to trade in the Red Sea, and one wonders how many of the 420 talents of gold these ships brought from Ophir to Solomon eventually ended up at Hiram's palace in Tyre (see 1 Kings 9.28).
Was the Temple the Center?
While the Bible writers treat the Temple as the focal point of Solomon's ambitious building plan, it is easy to see the seeds of destruction sown in its building and ornate decoration. The Bible demonstrates that this was hardly Solomon's greatest project (in terms of size or luxury) nor was it his only temple.
Moreover, the steps that Solomon took to fund the project--through tariffs, taxes, and slavery--left the kingdom in deep debt, left the populace at the edge of revolution, left Israel with little moral vigor to pursue worship in the way Solomon's father had envisioned.
As Solomon's 40-year reign ended, the seeds had grown into a forest of danger for his successors. Within five years of his death, his kingdom would be divided and his fabulous temple would be stripped of nearly every ounce of inlaid gold.
But that is for a future time and a future post.