The overall message of the Bible supports the conclusion that violence against other human beings in the name of service to God is a sign of idolatry, not of faithfulness. Violence against other human beings is a sign that something else is ultimate, not God. Jesus made this clear – love your enemies, treat those you disagree with compassion.
Ancient Israel came into being as God’s people, meant to further God’s healing strategy for the world. However, the story as told from the perspective of the prophets concludes that they did not always faithfully fulfill that calling. They all too often tended to live much like the other nations – unjust, violent, idolatrous. Ancient Israel as a nation-state lived by the sword and, in the end, died by the sword.
The story of Solomon helps us to understand better how this happened. This story of Solomon as presented in the Bible is in many ways flattering to him. But not so much if we read it closely. By reading the story closely, we see Solomon as a sophisticated, power-seeking, ruthless leader, who as much as anyone moved the ancient Israelite nation-state toward its tragic ending.
Solomon was not David’s legal heir. He had an older half-brother, Adonijah. Through shrewd scheming, though, Solomon becomes king. Those loyal to the older traditions side with Solomon’s brother – indicating that Adonijah had legitimacy on his side. But once Solomon gains control, he wastes no time in establishing his power and eliminating any potential opponents. He executes Adonijah and Adonijah’s main ally, old Joab, who had been David’s top general. And Solomon sends Abiathar, a powerful priest, into exile.
Once in power, Solomon expands his authority. He reorganizes the social structures toward much greater centralized control. He institutes a rigorous taxation policy to expand his treasury. He begins to draft soldiers, to expand the collection of horses and chariots into a large, permanent army with career military leaders. And he also institutes a policy of forced labor for his twenty-year building project of constructing the temple and his palace.
These practices go against what had been written about kings earlier. Deuteronomy 17 reports that Israel’s kings were explicitly commanded not to accumulate wealth for themselves. Samuel warned that the kings would build standing armies, take the best of the produce of the people, and make them slaves. This is precisely what Solomon does.
Solomon also cultivated ties with other countries. He had hundreds of wives – women from many nations; one of the great harems of all time. Perhaps Solomon was simply a terrific lover. However, more likely, his marriages were for political purposes. Through his wives he gained international status.
Again, this is precisely what Deuteronomy tells the king not to do. “He must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away” (17:17). We read later in 2 Kings 11 that indeed Solomon’s heart did turn away. His many wives influenced him to worship other gods. “His wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God” (1 Kings 11:4).
The building of the Temple played a major role in strengthening Solomon’s power. It allowed him to control the religious practices, as they were centered in one place. The Temple was also a way to contain God. Solomon proclaimed, “I have built [for] you, [God], an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever” (1 Kings 8:13). But Israel’s God does not dwell in a house, even an exalted house.
Israel had understood God’s sovereignty as something free, dynamic. God chose the poor and oppressed slaves in Egypt and liberated them from their bondage – challenging the king of Egypt, acting on behalf those in need, those with little power and prestige. God acted to bring into being a people whose life would be ordered around God’s justice that heals. God acted to bring into being a people who could show the world what God’s healing justice is like. This justice of God was utterly free from the control of kings, of mighty people, of oppressors.
Solomon, though, in building up his empire, controlling Israel’s economics and Israel’s religion subordinated God’s sovereignty to his own. What happens then, is that penultimate things take priority over God. The king desires to hold on to power, to dominate others, to have a safe, controlled, centralized religion. These are more important than genuine worship of God.
The tragedy of Solomon was a tragedy often repeated in the Bible. Sadly, it has been repeated, as well, in Christian history. Too often, church people also have placed control and conformity above love and respect.
The Bible, in its overall message, directly challenges any tendency to make anything other than God and God’s will ultimate. The key passage from 1 Kings 9 concludes with a solemn promise from God: “If you turn aside from following me…and do not keep my commandments…, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut Israel off from the land…; and the [Temple] I will cast out of my sight.…This [Temple] will become a heap of ruins” (1 Kings 9:6-8).
This is indeed what happens. Solomon did turn aside from following God. “His wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God” (1 Kings 11:4). And in time Israel is cut off from the land and the Temple does become a heap of ruins.
The temple serves as an important window for understanding Solomon’s impact on Israel. Before Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, the tribes of Israel had worshiped in a number of sanctuaries, most prominently Shiloh. Shiloh was destroyed, evidently by the Philistines as a result of the battle recounted in 1 Samuel 4. The Philistines took from the Hebrews the Ark of the Covenant at that time. The Hebrews eventually regained the Ark and established it in Jerusalem. David and Solomon, used the desire to have a place where the Ark would be housed as the basis for constructing a temple. According to the story, David failed to build the temple himself, but Solomon succeeded.
Solomon constructed the temple as a central element of his successful efforts to centralize the power of the kingly office in ancient Israel. Among other elements, these efforts included Solomon’s gathering what is reported to be an extraordinarily large collection of wives. Besides serving apparent political benefits gained through marrying women from other countries and thus establishing alliances, this gathering of such a harem also served Solomon’s purposes of ensuring a large progeny of heirs and establishing his own potent fertility.
Solomon also established a rationalized system of tax districts to take the place of the traditional clans and tribes. In so doing, he furthered the power of the centralized state by deliberately eliminating the tribal system of decentralized power. This economic transformation led to an economics of privilege that fostered increasingly disruptive social stratification among the Hebrews, separating the wealthy from the poor and thus undercutting the anti-Egypt concerns of Torah.
A third example of Solomon’s centralizing efforts was his developing a large and elaborate bureaucracy. This bureaucracy reflected Solomon’s desire to have Israel imitate larger empires by institutionalizing technical reason and pushing Israel’s Torah-based communal dynamics to the margins.
A final example that overtly challenged the earlier words of Samuel in resistance to Israel’s establishing the office of kingship, would be Solomon’s establishing an extensive standing army. This development created a permanent military class with centralized authority. It also meant that the gathering of armaments and possibilities of engaging in warfare would not require a broadly based sense of community support, but rather would be an ever-present reality.
The temple provided the central symbol holding together all these various elements reflecting the political transformation of ancient Israel. More than anything else, the temple reflected Israel’s conformity with surrounding nations. Solomon, in creating the centralized and king-dominated religious institution centered in the temple returned Israel to a style of social organizing much more reminiscent of the Egyptian empire than the covenant community established by exodus and torah. Reflecting this transformation, unlike in earlier times we see no prophetic figures such as Moses or Samuel as the center of social discernment processes in Israel. When prophets emerge in Solomon’s time, they are shunted to the edges for private conversations with the king – and they have nothing to say in the context of the religious life of the community.
In Solomonic Israel the temple fostered a hierarchical, static, king-controlled religion. That this religion is secondary to and meant to serve the king’s will may be seen in the timing of construction. The king’s palace comes first; “God’s temple” second. The understanding of God undergoes a corresponding shift in light of the temple’s emergence. God is now fully accessible to the king, no longer wild and free, but rather contained within “God’s house” and, in effect, available to the king at all times. A God who may actually act independently of the regime in power is repressed in favor of a God of the king – like that of the nations (see 1 Kings 8:12-13).
Following the construction of the temple on “Mount Zion,” Israel has a rival tradition in tension with the prophetic/Torah-oriented tradition of Moses and Mount Sinai. These two traditions often compete, the later prophets draw on the Mosaic tradition, the defenders of the king-centered status quo draw on the Davidic/Solomonic/Zionist tradition. These two traditions have totally different roots and present reality in vastly different ways.
At the heart of Mosaic faith, God remains free. Israel serves a God who is transcendent, that is, not simply a God who serves Israel’s needs whatever they might be. Moses understood God to judge Israel negatively when Israel departed from God’s will. This is the basis for the prophetic critiques that continued to be interjected into Israel’s public life. The prophets affirm God’s freedom, asserting that Israel would serve God’s purposes or suffer consequences. The God of the kings and the temple, much more, exist to serve the state. After Solomon, it was not thinkable in establishment Israel that God would act apart from the king’s agenda.
In contrast to the God of Moses, who liberates slaves and acts dynamically in the world, free from control by human power blocs, the God of the temple much more serves to reinforce the power and order of Israel’s political hierarchy. Israel under Solomon, centered around the temple, is much different from Israel under Moses, centered around Torah. Consequently, Israel’s God now is much different, too.
The temple presented itself as having at its center the function of providing for the worship of Yahweh. In practice, though, the worship of Yahweh in this context also had the impact of adding to the legitimacy and prestige of the king and his supporters. Under Solomon, and for the generations that follow until the temple was destroyed, the temple played the role of “royal chapel” much more than of a community sanctuary.
The experience of the nation-state under the kings and their temple led to significant prophetic critique. This critique provided a basis for the sustenance of faith in Yahweh when the nation-state and temple ended up in rubble. As the Israelite nation-state approached its end, Jeremiah voiced a strong critique focused on the temple.
Jeremiah 7 contains extraordinarily harsh words for the temple and its leaders. Jeremiah linked loyalty to the temple with acts of injustice.
Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!” – only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? (Jeremiah 7:9-11).
Just as Yahweh had responded to Israel’s earlier sins with the destruction of the Shiloh sanctuary, now the Jerusalem temple would go down. Yahweh’s righteousness would not remain a presence in an unjust Judah.
After the Temple is destroyed, the people are in shock. They had been conditioned to think of God being contained within the Temple. Isaiah 66 speaks to this crisis. With the Temple in ruin, does that mean that God is no more?
No! cries the prophet. Absolutely not. God is ultimate, not the Temple. God does not need Solomon’s Temple. “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool,” God says. You cannot contain me within this house, within this temple that you have built with your hands. God cannot be controlled. God cannot be restricted to certain locations, nations, or other hierarchies and ideologies. The presence of God is not to be found in temples or palaces. God is to be found among those who follow God’s ways. “This is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:1-2).
New Testament texts also challenge making human structures more important than God and God’s merciful ways. In Jesus’ time, the temple had been rebuilt, by King Herod, who no doubt had similar motives to Solomon. It was seen as a means of exerting control and gaining prestige. It served as the center for religious life.
John 2 tells us of a confrontation between Jesus and some of the temple leaders. Here Jesus identifies his own body as God’s temple. He totally relativizes the significance of the temple building. That institution really has little to do with God’s actual presence in the world. God’s presence in the world does not need a human building. God’s presence in the world cannot be controlled by priests and kings. God is present most of all in the life and ministry of Jesus. With Jesus’ death and ascension into heaven, the Holy Spirit is poured out among his followers. God’s presence, God’s temple, has to do with the gift of the Spirit. God’s presence is not limited to human-made temples and institutions.
Paul’s words to the Corinthians tell us this: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?…God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:16-17). Paul undercuts everything Solomon and all other temple politicians have tried to enforce with their absolutes and controlled access to God and their ideology and coercion.
God’s genuine temple, the place where God is truly found is the human being. We see this pre-eminently in Jesus, but Paul emphasizes that each person of faith shares this with Jesus. The Spirit of God, free, creative, sovereign in its persevering and life-giving love, the Spirit of God dwells in the human heart that trusts in God’s mercy.
Making human institutions too important often leads to violence – even when this is done in the name of service to God. God’s priority is on human beings finding healing. God’s priority is on human beings knowing love. Institutions, structures, rules, doctrines, and principles – these are all important parts of God’s healing strategy. However, they are not what is most important. What is most important is summarized by the prophet Hosea (and reiterated by Jesus): “I desire steadfast love [more than] sacrifice; the knowledge of God [more than] burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6; Mt 9:13; 12:7).