Advent Week 3: Jerusalem

Last week we left Israel with an invitation that represented the totality of the Ten Commandments and all the laws that followed:  God saying to Israel “I liberated you from slavery in Egypt.  Now go and make this happen for others too.”  Did they accept?

For the answer to this question, we must fast-forward a couple of centuries.  Israel has settled in the Promised Land.  After a long and turbulent season, Israel has established itself as a cohesive nation-state with a king.  (This was not without controversy: Israel’s asking for a king was an act of disobedience motivated by a desire to be just like the other nations surrounding them.  Samuel, the reigning prophet at that time, called them out on this and warned them of dire future consequences that would result from having a king.  But Moses had foreseen that Israel would eventually want a king and left detailed instructions on what sort of man this king was supposed to be.  More on this later.)

The first king was a man named Saul.  He was not a very good king; though he had some initial success he left Israel worse off than he found it.  His successor was a man named David who would go on to be the best king Israel ever had.  Under him many of the promises concerning Israel and the Promised Land came to fruition; all of Israel’s enemies were subdued and Israel’s territory was enlarged to almost all of the maximum area promised.

David wanted to build a temple.  But God had other ideas.  Still, David was passionate about the temple.  Though he was not permitted to build it himself, he worked very hard for it and arranged things so that all his son Solomon had to do was give the order and the thing would practically build itself.

So we resume our story during the reign of Solomon.  The temple has just been completed and dedicated in a very large-scale ceremony where impressive prayers were prayed and crazy things happened to show that God was inhabiting the temple.  This is, by all accounts, Israel’s finest hour.

But there are some cracks in the foundations.  In 1 Kings 6:38 and 7:1, we see that Solomon spent seven years building the temple but thirteen years building his own palace.  This should start to raise some concerns.  1 Kings 9:15:  “Here is the account of the forced labor King Solomon conscripted to build the Lord’s temple, his own palace, the supporting terraces, the wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer.”  For “forced labor”, read “slaves”.  Slaves labored to build the temple of the Lord who sets slaves free, who set Israel free when they were in slavery in Egypt.  The former slaves have now become the oppressors.  Alarm bells should be starting to go off now.

At Israel’s finest hour, they have forgotten their story, that they were once slaves in Egypt but God liberated them and they should be seeking to make that liberation happen for others as well.  So the answer is no, Israel did not accept the invitation that God had extended to them.

But wait.  It gets worse.

At the end of 1 Kings 9:15, there are some place names.  These are the names of fortresses–in more contemporary parlance, military bases.  One of these is Megiddo, from which we get Armageddon.  What is Solomon doing here?  He is using his massive resources and wealth to build fortresses to protect his…massive resources and wealth.  What’s wrong with this picture?

But wait.  It gets worse.

1 Kings 10:26:  “Solomon accumulated chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses, which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem.”  Pharaoh and his soldiers used horses and chariots to attempt to chase down Israel as they were leaving Egypt.  Now Solomon was getting horses and chariots from Egypt.

1 Kings 10:29:  “They imported a chariot from Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse for a hundred and fifty.  They also exported them to all the kings of the Hittites and of the Arameans.”  So Solomon was an arms dealer.  Who knew?

Does this look like maintaining justice and righteousness, and hearing the cry of the oppressed?  One would be very hard pressed to say so.

But wait.  It gets worse.

1 Kings 11:3-4:  “He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.  As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.”  This is worse than any of the systemic failures mentioned above.  This is a failure of the heart.  Solomon broke covenant with God–the very first commandment.

In Deuteronomy 17:16-17, Moses gives detailed instructions about what sort of person the king of Israel is to be.  Solomon is the complete antithesis of this.  “The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them…”  Solomon imported horses and chariots from Egypt and had so many of them that he had to build special cities just for them.  Fail.  “He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.”  Solomon took many wives, and his heart was led astray.  Fail.  “He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.”  Solomon made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones (1 Kings 10:27), and every year he made 666 talents of gold (1 Kings 10:14).  Fail.

Notice that the writer of 1 Kings says 666 talents of gold.  Numbers in the Bible usually mean more than what they actually mean.  Anytime you see the number 666 in the Bible, it is a distinctly Jewish way of saying that something is very very very wrong here.

Israel is in its finest hour under King Solomon, yet we see that the story has taken a very tragic turn.  Israel has forgotten who they were, who God intended them to be.  And God is in a very awkward place.  What do you do when the people whom you appointed to be your image in the world look nothing like you?  When they become the very embodiment of all the things that you are against?  When they go back the very way that they were not supposed to go, to the very place that you rescued them from?

There’s a word for this:  exile.  More on this next time.