The place of the temple in biblical faith is complicated — with emphases on the temple as the God-ordained center for worship contrasted with sharp critiques from prophets that the temple helped empower injustice and idolatry.
As we look at the story of the building of the temple as presented in 1 Kings 8, we will see on the surface strong affirmation of the importance of the temple. However, we will also see hints of a more ominous side to temple-centered religion.
We note in 1 Kings 8 the centrality of King Solomon to the story of the temple. So, we should keep in mind the bigger story of the reign of King Solomon, both his rise to power in 1 Kings 1-7 and the events after the building of the temple in 1 Kings 9-11. It also seems important to keep in mind the warnings that were given in Deut. 17:14-20 about the dangers of kingship (not to mention the predictions of kingly rule in 1 Samuel 8). How does Solomon’s career look in light of those concerns?
The temple was built after King David’s success in ridding Israel of their enemies and Solomon’s strengthening of the centralized power of human kingship. After generations of insecurity in the promised land, Israel’s territorial kingdom finds a measure of security. Interestingly, Solomon finishes the temple (God’s “exalted house,” 8:13) only after spending 13 years “building his own house” (7:1).
Building the temple completes Solomon’s efforts to establish himself as the unquestioned leader of Israel. Remember that when his father David died, Solomon was not the automatic heir. He gained the throne through a ruthless process of eliminating his rivals (1 Kings 1-2). Once he establishes himself, he proceeds greatly to expand the centralized, top-down power of the king far beyond what was exercised by Saul and David.
Does the temple truly honor God? Solomon presents the temple project as a way to honor God —with the apparent support of the people, certainly the support of Israel’s elite (8:1).
At the same time, we also learn that the temple was built with the forced labor of 30,000 Israelites (5:13). Solomon extracted immense wealth and work hours from his people to create his ostentatious palace and temple.
Though Solomon presents the temple as God’s house, meant to honor God, the tone in 1 Kings 8 seems to exalt Solomon as much, if not more, than God. Notice all the “I” language: “I have built you an exalted house” (8:13); “I sit on the throne of Israel” (8:20); “I have provided a place for the ark” (8:20).
The existence of the temple raises many questions. Solomon is so central. What do we learn about Solomon’s reign after the temple is built? Does having a temple as the center of Israel’s common life lead to kingship that conforms with the description from the law codes of how the kings should behave?
Deut. 17:14-20 gives an outline: “He must not acquire many horses for himself. . . . And he must not acquire many wives for himself. . . . Silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.”
A key emphasis here is that the promise “that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel” will be fulfilled only if the kings remain faithful to these commands.
How does King Solomon stack up in relation to Deuteronomy 17? One of the most famous aspects of Solomon’s kingship gives us a clue: “Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines” (11:3). As well, “King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches” (11:22).
The temple remains the center of the religious life of the territorial kingdom for hundreds of years. However, it ends up in rubble. As does the territorial kingdom itself.
Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.