What happens when insitutions, beliefs, and traditions became too important? That is, what happens when human things take the place of God?
An answer can be found in understanding the difference between the ultimate and the penultimate. The word penultimate means, “next to the ultimate.” Something which is nearly the most important thing—but not quite. For God’s people, everything important is penultimate, except God. Our institutions, belief systems, and traditions are all important; at most, though, they are penultimate.
One test we can use to discern when something which is penultimate becomes too important is this: something is too important when it is used as a basis for committing violence against other human beings. God loves all people, and when we honor God, nothing else can overrule God’s will that we follow God in loving all people.
The overall message of the Bible makes it clear 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 other than God is ultimate. Jesus made this clear—love your enemies, treat with compassion those with whom you disagree.
When we make penultimate things too important, we may easily be incited to violence to protect those things. Human religious institutions, cultures, and traditions have been given absolute status. When people feel protective of these “idols,” they may unleash a great deal of fury.
We can better understand the story of King Solomon in the Old Testament by reflecting on how making penultimate things too important leads to violence. The story seems flattering to Solomon—though not so much if we read it closely. In doing so, we will see that Solomon was a sophisticated, power-seeking, ruthless leader. As much as anyone he moved ancient Israel toward its tragic end of receiving God’s judgment at the hands of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires.
Solomon was not his father David’s legal heir. He had an older half-brother, Adonijah. Through shrewd scheming, though, Solomon became king. Those loyal to the older traditions sided with Solomon’s brother; however, once Solomon gained control, he wasted no time in establishing his power and eliminating any potential opponents. He executed Adonijah and Adonijah’s main ally, old Joab, who had been David’s top general. Solomon sendt Abiathar, a powerful priest who also supported Adonijah, into exile (1 Kings 2).
Once in power, Solomon expanded his authority. He centralized the social structures and instituted rigorous taxation to expand his treasury. He began to draft soldiers and to expand the collection of horses and chariots into a large, permanent army with career military leaders. He also instituted a policy of forced labor for his twenty-year building project of constructing the temple and his palace.
These practices went against what had been written about kings earlier. Deuteronomy reports that Israel’s kings were explicitly commanded not to accumulate wealth for themselves (Deut. 17). Samuel warned that the kings would build standing armies, take the best of the produce of the people, and make them slaves (1 Sam. 8). This is precisely what Solomon did.
Solomon also cultivated ties with other countries. He had hundreds of women from many nations as wives—one of the great harems of all time. Perhaps Solomon was simply a terrific lover. His marriages were most likely for political purposes, and through his wives he enhanced his international status. Again, this is precisely what the king was told not to do. “He must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away” (Deut. 17:17). We read later in 2 Kings 11 that this is indeed what happened to Solomon. His many wives influenced him to worship 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 by centering them 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).
Traditionally, though, Israel did not understand God to dwell in a house, not even in an “exalted” house. Israel had understood God’s sovereignty as something free and dynamic. God chose the poor and oppressed slaves in Egypt and liberated them from their bondage—challenging the king of Egypt and acting on behalf those with little power and prestige. God acted to bring into being a people whose life would be ordered around God’s justice which heals. This action could show the world what God’s healing justice was like. This justice of God was utterly free from the control of kings, mighty people, and oppressors.
Solomon, though, in building up his empire and controlling Israel’s economics and Israel’s religion, subordinated God’s sovereignty to his own. Penultimate things took priority over God. The king desired to hold on to power, to dominate others, and to have a safe, controlled, centralized religion. These are more important than genuine worship of God. The tragedy of Solomon is repeated often in the Bible. Sadly, it has been repeated in Christian history as well. Church people too often have placed control and conformity above love and respect.
The Bible directly challenges any tendency to make anything other than God and God’s will ultimate. In response to the completion of Solomon’s temple, God makes a promise: “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. By the time of the prophet Jeremiah several hundred years later, Israel was cut off from the land and the temple did become a heap of ruins.
After the Temple is destroyed, the people were in shock. They had been conditioned to think of God being contained within the temple. With that temple in ruin, does that mean that God is no more?
“No!” cries the prophet. Absolutely not. God is ultimate; the temple is not. 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 which you have built with your hands. God cannot be controlled or restricted to certain locations, nations, hierarchies, or ideologies. God is not to be found in temples or palaces but 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).
Much later, John’s Gospel and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians also challenge making human structures more important than God. In Jesus’ time, the temple had been rebuilt by King Herod, who no doubt had similar motives to Solomon. It was 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. Jesus identifies his own body as God’s temple. He relativizes the significance of the temple building. That insitution had little to do with God’s presence in the world. God’s presence in the world does not need a human building and 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 and 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 polticians have tried to enforce with their controlled access to God, their ideology, and their coercion.
God’s genuine temple—the place where God is truly found—is the human being. We see this preeminantly in Jesus, but Paul emphasizes that each person of faith shares this with Jesus. The Spirit of God, free and creative in its persevering and life-giving love, dwells in human hearts that trust in God’s mercy.
Making penultimate things 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 and knowing God’s love. Institutions, structures, rules, doctrines, and principles are all important parts of God’s healing strategy; however, they are not the most important.
The prophet Hosea summarizes that which is most important: “I desire steadfast love [more than] sacrifice; the knowledge of God [more than] burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6).