A Lectionary Reflection on 1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43 & Ephesians 6:10-20 For Proper 16B / Ordinary 21B
And so our journey through the three kings of the united kingdom comes to a close. It seems like a fitting conclusion for the Lectionary to give us, with the Temple finally built, the Ark of the Covenant in place, the shekinah – the cloud of God’s glory – filling the sanctuary, and Solomon, the son of David, praying for God to hear the prayers of those who turn to this Temple in their time of need. If it were a movie, you would hear violins swelling into a brass crescendo as the scene filled with an otherworldly light and the titles started scrolling across the screen.
Excerpt that the writer of this scene – possibly the same one (or at least the same set of editors) who brought the book of Deuteronomy into the world – was not writing this account to celebrate Solomon’s piety. He wrote it to people who lived a few centuries later to explain why, after such a glorious beginning, God’s chosen nation was now conquered, the Temple – the same one that Solomon had dedicated – was now destroyed, and the people were now living in exile under foreign rule. And the key to answer this question is to be found in Solomon’s prayer.
Before we consider the prayer, though, we need to take note of something that the Lectionary leaves out this week. Before he addresses God, Solomon addresses the leaders of Israel. From verse 14 to 21 of 1 Kings 8, Solomon proclaims a strong apologetic for his reign. There has been some competition for his place on the throne, and it is not a given in every mind that he is the rightful king. And so, to secure his throne, using this auspicious occasion, Solomon reminds the leaders of Israel of God’s special relationship with David, and David’s desire to build the Temple. Then, he reminds them of God’s promise that it would not be David, but one of his sons, who would build the Temple. He closes with the obvious reminder that he has now fulfilled this promise. The implication, of course, is that he has also fulfilled other promises to David – those of a son who will continue his dynasty. In this proclamation, Solomon cements his place as the king of Israel.
The Lectionary also leaves out a significant portion of Solomon’s prayer. The prayer celebrates God’s grace, and the fact that no Temple can contain God. But, then it moves on to seven petitions, of which the Lectionary includes only one – that God should also hear the prayers of immigrants who pray toward the Temple. The other prayers are more concerned with the issues that undermine kingdoms and their kings: war and defeat, famine, the sinfulness of the nation and the possibility that they should repent, the taking of oaths. I do not doubt that Solomon, as far as he was able with the understanding of God that was common in his day, was sincere in his prayer. I also have no doubt that Solomon was doing his best to ensure that he would enjoy God’s support as much as he believed his father had. But, there was one small detail that he seemed consistently unable to keep in mind.
The writer reports, in the following chapter, that God responded to Solomon’s prayer – and it is hear that the explanation for Israel’s downfall is offered. God promises to watch over and protect God’s people, but there is a condition. If they fail to remain faithful in worship and in following God’s ways of justice and holiness, they will suffer the consequences. They will be uprooted, the Temple will be rejected, and they will become an object of mockery to the nations. Then, as the story of Solomon unfolds, his weakness for women, and his willingness to be drawn into their worship of other gods is clearly described. Following his reign, as the kingdom splits in two, the list of kings in the Northern kingdom who are evil – setting up competing centres of worship in which other gods are honoured – and in the Southern kingdom who are apostate – failing to preserve the purity of the Temple worship and to destroy the “high places” which competed with it for the people’s worship – is far longer than the list of those who are faithful. The result is to be expected, the writer seems to be saying. God warned us. From Solomon’s day we didn’t listen. Now, we suffer the consequences.
Perhaps, at it’s root, the problem for the people of Israel was in their prayer life. While Solomon prayed a rousing prayer, the motive, it seems, was self-preservation. His prayers, by and large – even last week’s one for wisdom – were about ensuring that God took his side and protected his power. He wasn’t praying to be changed. He was praying to try and manipulate God (and, probably those who were listening to his prayer as well) to stay on his side. The prayer was all about Solomon’s kingdom, not God’s. It was all about changing the world to suit him.
Fast forward to another prayer, requested of the newly birthed Church by an apostle in prison. Paul, after writing of the glory of God’s grace and the Church’s role in proclaiming that grace to the world, now, at the close of his letter to the Ephesians, turns to the final, crucial, element in the Church’s life of following Christ. There is a battle going on, he says, and the believers need to stand firm. But, it’s not a battle against human beings. It’s a battle against the forces of evil that are manifest in human systems and power structures – which are the product of human hearts. The place to fight the battle, then, is not, primarily, in any physical sphere, but in the hearts of the believers. It’s a battle that, unfortunately, the Church finally lost when it accepted the offer of political power under the Emperor Constantine, and when it became, itself, a human system of power and control.
The battle requires weapons, Paul teaches. But, they are not weapons to inflict harm on others. They are weapons of the heart – truth (which is probably more about “living truly” than about intellectual facts); God’s righteousness (or justice); readiness to proclaim the Gospel of peace in word and Christlike action; faith; salvation; God’s word; and, finally, prayer, which brings all of the other pieces together. What is often missed in Paul’s description, as we get caught up in the poetry of the specifics of Roman armour, is that every weapon Paul describes is a quality of the heart. And, that’s why prayer is needed. Hearts are only changed into Christlikeness, they can only resist the evil’s of self-aggrandisement, self-protection, and self-indulgence, when they are submitted to God’s transforming Spirit, and are immersed in the vision of God’s transforming Reign.
This is the work of prayer. Not to control God in our favour, or to get God to manipulate others for our sakes. The work of prayer is to release our need for control, to destroy our own little kingdoms before they destroy us like the unfaithful kings of Israel. The work of prayer is to recognise that the problem is not outside of us – whether in the people who resist us, or the circumstances of life that challenge us. The problem is in our own rebellious hearts – and that is where the battle must be fought.
The Lectionary this week offers us a tale of two kinds of prayer. Solomon models the personal-kingdom-preserving kind – the prayer that seeks not to be changed within, but to change what is outside of us in our favour. Paul models the prayer that characterises true citizenship in the Reign of God – the prayer that refuses to turn other people or outside circumstances into something to blame or fight, but that turns within and opens the heart to be changed by God’s Spirit. And in offering us these two kinds of prayer, the Lectionary offers us a choice: how will we choose to practice the discipline of prayer in our own lives?