Kings Do What Kings Do: Temple, Church, People and Housing God (Pt.2)

Kings Do What Kings Do: Temple, Church, People and Housing God (Pt.2)

Kings Do What Kings Do: Temple, Church, People and Housing God (Pt.2)

When I think of other reasons to consider choosing someone else to build God a house I think, “Why no mention of his indiscretion with Bathsheba? Why no reference to the murder of Uriah? No inner turmoil for ignoring the rape of his daughter?”

You may need to pick this up by reading, or re-reading Part 1.

It sure seems a case could be made, and in modern times by Christians is regularly made, that killing in war is justifiable. We still get incensed at the killing of innocents, the mistreatment of the powerless, and the abuse of others. At least that is our claim. Telling the leaders it was because of his military service and the accompanying shedding of blood that kept him from constructing the temple sounded better than admitting his own egregious actions. But, kings do what kings do.

And, kings say what kings say. When David concludes his speech to the leaders about the future, legacy-marking event in the temple, the leaders pledge their money. I do not mean to be crass, but this sure sounds like a good fund raising campaign. “Here is what I am setting aside for the building.” Implied, at least in how we practice it, is the expectation that those under the king would follow the king’s lead. And they did.

How does the story function? Why did the narrator not give us Nathan’s words as to why David was denied the privilege to build the temple? Please engage in something more than, “because it is there in black and white.” Doing so ignores the complexity of the story. A reason coming from the prophet would give the reason more credence. Maybe this is David’s version. Invoking the language of Divine sanction continues to this day. Sometimes it has been used to justify a position or an action that is really exposed to be our position or an action resulting from our agency, not God’s. That the Scriptures may include illustrations of this sort of thing for us to be wary of should not be surprising.

Dare I suggest that during my conversation with Guy yesterday he pointed out that we might miss some levity in the story? That is, knowing there would be readers of the story, the details may be intended for us to find humor in David being the one to offer the reason for his denial and that it was his military background not his moral fiascos. This should not be lost on us as a possibility lest we make the same mistakes. Can you think of a few?

What lies beneath? Consider the conversation between Samuel and YHWH. The pattern is established. The people observe the way others order and structure themselves and believe the material reality of a king is more to their liking than a spiritual reality only heard from via a prophet/priest. It is not that they really want to shun God’s presence. But, to gain standing among all nations they believe, or so it seems, a comparable order must be established for them to be taken seriously. “Give us a king.”

Follow that pattern and re-read God’s response to Nathan when the matter of a temple, a house, comes up. YHWH needs no house. How do you house a presence so ubiquitous as to be everywhere? God replays his interactions with his people. It is as if to say, “I need no house. It is you who think I need a house.” And, in similar fashion, God gave them instructions for a temple as he did in giving a king. What if God gives us what we want even if what we say we want we already have? Is that not Israel’s dilemma? They wanted a king – they had one. They wanted a temple – they had one.

Where would David have gotten the idea to house God? He saw them in the places he conquered. What would happen when the people determined to house God? Presence is consolidated and controlled. By the time Jesus stands in Luke 4, preserving the house and its accompanying ritual and rigor become the means of honoring God rather than what Jesus would propose and later Paul would radicalize. Déjà vu?

“But the time is coming – and is here! – when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth.” Not on this mountain or that. Not in this house or that. Paul extends the thought. People are the house of God’s dwelling. “Don’t you know your body is the temple of God?”

Nevermind that Jesus talks of the destruction of the temple, the building or his body, we miss that we cannot house God in a temple or in a church. We say we know this but then fight tooth and nail to keep the constituency happy enough to contribute and maintain our own structures and systems.

These attempts to house God miss that the language of the Sacred Text. People house God’s presence. The implication is two-fold, at least. First, the mission of God then becomes incumbent on the person(s) who lay claim to being Christian. By mission I do not mean the narrow vision of personal evangelism. I mean participation in the multi-faceted mission that at its core is the agenda of Jesus to reconcile the world to himself. Second, if Christians ever hope to offer a hopeful call to the Nones, the de-churched, or post-churched, the skeptic and the cynic, it will come when we discontinue our efforts to take back perceived places of Christian privilege wherein we house God in our structures and institutions and instead illustrate how God is housed in us.

For, even to Jesus’ critics he says, “the Kingdom of God is within you.”

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  • Guy Rittger

    Todd – Picking up on another thread of our recent conversation, the desire of God’s followers to substitute all manner of common cultural and political conventions – kings, temples, priests, rituals, etc., – emerges very early on in the Old Testament narratives. It seems to me that at each point in which God offers to enter into intimate communion with his people they respond with a counter-offer that either keeps God at a safe distance or allows them to conform with the common practices of those among whom they lived. Consider the story of the institution of laws and judges, in Exodus 18 – in the account, the recommendation is attributed to Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, who justifies it by telling Moses that he’ll burn himself out if he keeps governing the people by himself. So we see the replacement of a direct intercessor who speaks directly with God, with what we might call an ecclesiastical structure of governance. Later, in Exodus 19, you have an interesting conversation between God and Moses where the people are prohibited from approaching near to God lest they be killed for lack of consecration, ostensibly. Then, again, in Exodus 25 you get the instructions on the building of the Ark of the Covenant, attributed to God’s command.

    All of these actions, which record the gradual evolution of religious and political institutions and structures, and which are attributed to God’s commands, might just as easily be read as retroactive justifications for the very things which ultimately come to replace the individual’s relationship with God with something akin to what we might now consider nationalism tinged with religion. Your insightful citation of Paul’s dismissal of all those things as irrelevant to the real “Kingdom of God” pretty much confirms this for me.

    As I think I’ve said on several occasions, I’ve come to the conclusion that much of Church history has been the history of justifying the imposition of institutions and practices designed not to bring individuals closer to God but, rather, to keep them apart and subject to the control of elites, at least since the time of Constantine, and certainly in our own time.

    Really enjoyed this discussion and re-visiting some challenging issues and questions.

    • http://www.toddlittleton.net Todd Littleton

      Guy,
      I am going to mull the reading/writing as retroactive. Your reference to Jethro reminded me of how the story is retold in Deuteronomy. Moses gives no attribution to Jethro but sounds as though the solution to keep from burn-out was his idea.

      Look forward to our next conversation.

  • Paul

    Todd, good stuff.

    Though I’m a little conflicted on the point you make here. Substantially I agree. At the same time, God did seem to commission the tabernacle – a structure – before the Temple ever was at issue. I do think there is something important about earthly representations of eternal realities. Important, I say, but not ultimately so. Yet temporally so. They often help us in this world to see realities we might not otherwise see. And it seems that on many occasions God is using those temporal realities/representations to teach us something. Two examples that come to mind: 1) When visitors enter the empty tomb and see two angels sitting on each end of the slab where Jesus’ previously lay – which is itself an image of the ark of the covenant; and 2) the illustration you use, that we Christians are the body of Christ – even in these temporal, mortal bodies that will only last but 70 or 80 years on this earth. Earthly representations of a greater reality. Sort of like what the author of Hebrews references regularly.

    Of course, as you point out, we have a way of taking things that God has intended to be instructive to us about these things and turn them into something else entirely – even contrary to God’s intended purpose. But we do that with most things. Not just temples and kings.

    So I think we constantly need these sort of reminders – to call us back from our tendencies to pervert truth to serve our own agendas and/or promote our own selves over the God who is and who reigns.

    Hope all of that made some sense. I’m a bit out of practice. :)

    • http://www.toddlittleton.net Todd Littleton

      Paul,

      Thanks for knocking off the rust. It is always helpful when you comment.

      I did not reference the tabernacle precisely because it represented God’s own argument that he had always moved with the people.

      Going to come back after thinking about this more.

  • Guy Rittger

    Putting on my historicist hat, a tabernacle makes perfect sense for a traditionally nomadic people, particularly when their way of life is oriented around tending livestock rather than seasonal agriculture. Only later, when nomadic life gives way to a more settled social condition, does constructing a temple make sense.

    As for the value of material manifestations of the divine, God’s directive to construct a tabernacle and a temple sits, to my mind, in a certain tension with the commandment against worshipping idols or graven images, if you will. Among other religious groups in that region and time period, you would have had physical structures to house the idols towards which adherents oriented their devotion. One might well argue that those idols were simply material manifestations of their respective invisible divinities, and existed solely to facilitate a closer relationship.

    All this to observe, simply, that the Israelites in most respects were on a parallel track with other tribes in the region, but go out of their way to stress their differences, when it comes to explaining or justifying their practices. Presumably if those other religious groups’ scriptures had endured, we might have read similar accounts.

    Best,

    Guy

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