17 July 2010

The Temple: Who Needed It?

If you read the Bible beginning to end, you will find a verse near the end of the final book of Revelation that will surprise you.

John the Revelator, given a prophetic glimpse of the World Made New, makes an astonishing observation:
"I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple" (Revelation 21.22).

I have read this verse scores of times without really "getting it." It is fanciful--inspirational even--the thought of worshiping out in the open with the Lamb of God, my Savior.

Now, I begin to suspect that it is far more than that.

It's ironic.

I mean, have you read the Bible? It's obsessed with the Temple--or rather, a series of temples built sequentially in Jerusalem. The Temple is a place, an idea that unites Abraham with Isaac, Moses with David, Solomon with Ezra, Ezekiel with Jesus, and Paul with destiny.

Yet twenty verses before the end of his Revelation, John speaks out of prophetic ecstasy, peers into the center of the New Jerusalem, and he does not see a temple.

John Lennon, one of the most outspoken 20th-century atheists, sang,
"Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try.... Nothing to kill or die for, no religion too."
If you are a Christian believer who is annoyed by that lyric, then you have some inkling of how Jews might feel about someone who writes, "Imagine there's no temple, it's easy if you try."

Granted, Revelation was written 30 to 40 years after the final Jerusalem Temple had been obliterated by Titus's army, so most of John's readers would have only known a world without a temple. Still, the prophecy would have had a huge impact on a worldwide church that was still equal parts Jew and Gentile.

But why?

Had not God said through Zechariah, "I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem...and the mountain of the Lord Almighty will be called the Holy Mountain"? (Zechariah 8.3). Anyone who reads the Old Testament begins to believe that The Temple is really the point of the whole thing--'the belly button of the world' as Jewish tradition believed. It was the central point of worship, the focal point of the Jewish nation. Who did John think he was?

As the sheer irony of John's statement began to sink in, it really took me back into scripture. All of the stories of the temple had reached a peak for me now--a place where I could see that there was no need for a temple. The Temple is vestigial. That's what John seemed to be saying to me, and I had to hunt through the Bible to find out how it got to be that way.

In order to really understand the Temple, it is important to identify the multiple perspectives in play. The Bible writers--mostly from the priestly class that rose up after the Temple had been built--stressed the religious nature of society and the role of God in history. Outside the Bible writers, one can also see glimpses of empires like Egypt and Phoenicia (Philistia, Tyre and Sidon are outposts of this superpower that was based in Carthage). Kingdoms like Judah and Israel rise and fall. Empires like Assyria and Babylon wander in and out of the narrative. Everyone sees the Temple at the center.

Everyone, it seems, but God.

The Temple Idea
The Temple wasn't God's idea. If you read through the five books of the Torah, books in which the minutest details of Jewish culture are spelled out, there is no mention of a Temple. Moses ordered a tent to be built, and inside this tent he placed a modest-sized, gilded box or "ark." There was s no Temple--not even a recognized need for one. Presumably, after efforts to utilize the golden box in conquest were unsuccessful, it was forgotten for a generation, left not in a tent but in the house of Abinidab.

The rescue of the golden box and the idea for the Temple come from the same man: David. The first six chapters of 2 Samuel are a flurry of nation-building, as David crushes remaining opposition from the House of Saul, defeats the Philistines, conquers Jerusalem and consolidates the kingdom under his command.

In the context of events, the House of God would seem to be David's final conquest. Israel's dominion over Jerusalem is barely a year old, David isn't done fighting, just taking "a rest from all his enemies around him" (2 Sam 7.1), when he makes a wily declaration:
"Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent" (2 Samuel 7.2)
Who could argue with this? The prophet Nathan can't--at least not at first. We don't see conquest here; we fall for David's piety, his humility, his concern for God's gilt box.

God takes exception. God doesn't seem pleased. "Did I ever say to any...I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, 'Why have you not built me a house of cedar?'" (verse 7). There is only one Creator, God points out, and He creates spaces for His people--both physical and spiritual. To God, David's plan is like a child declaring to its mother: "I'll make a womb where you can be safe and warm and fed."

"The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you," the message continues, again emphasizing that David's "house of cedar" may not be the ultimate house God has in mind. The promise extends, however, to David's son: "He is the one who will build a house for my Name" (verse 13).

God rejects David's proposal of conquest. Later, David will claim that the rejection was based on his reputation as a warrior (1 Chronicles 28.3), but that isn't supported by the actual text. David had conquered everything that stood between his shepherd's staff and the king's scepter. He would not control the box as well. That would remain under God.

Taxation and Oppression
David seizes on one element of the promise: he prepares to build the temple anyway, letting his (unborn) heir take the credit. Again, this can be seen as yet another canny political move. Battles over succession and legitimacy were endemic in royal houses. David's heir would achieve on the drafting board what David had claimed on the battlefield: legitimacy, primacy, and fame.

Without laying a single stone, David designs the temple portico (verse 11), sets up a schedule for the temple workers (13), "he designated the weight of gold for all the gold articles to be used in various kinds of service, and the weight of silver for all the silver articles" (14). He foresees two golden cherubim, spreading their wings across the gilt box to lend it glory (!).

And he does this in a spasm of spiritual ecstasy: later he will tell Solomon, "All this I have in writing from the hand of the Lord upon me, and he gave me understanding in all the details of the plan" (19).

But there is one problem--it's a problem that faces every king and president sooner or later--where will the gold and silver come from?

The people. The people always pay.

Again, one can look back at God's "no thank you" and see the reason why. God was happy in a tent, why would he need a house? A wooden box, inlaid with gold was enough for His Covenant, was there a need for more? Taxation...taxation without consecration quickly leads to a corrupt church and compromised forms of worship.

David offers his fortune: three thousand talents of gold, with thousands more of silver, bronze and iron. "The task is great," he proclaims, "because this palatial structure is not for man but for the Lord God" (1 Chronicles 29.1). The people respond with five thousand talents of gold. This is a tax that will extend for a generation, long after the completion of the Temple, until the kingdom is divided by the oppressive taxing regime.

Because I am full of irony (thanks to John), I note that "the people rejoiced at the willing response of their leaders.... David the king also rejoiced greatly" (9), but there is no mention of how God responded.

Imagine there's no Temple. It's easy if you try. No sanded cedars. No golden cherubim guarding the Most Holy Place. No courts, no altars.

It is important to pause here because of the picture we see without the Temple. Israel is at its height of conquest. David rules in Jerusalem, fully allied with God and devoted to Him. The people are religious, eager to glorify God and willing to give all they have.

It will never fully be this way again in Jerusalem's future...at least not until the New Jerusalem found in Revelation 21.

But that is for a future time, and I will delve into Solomon later.

No comments: