The Politics of Temples—1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 (Peter Leithart)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

According to 1 Kings 8, prayer is what Israel is supposed to do in times of helpless hopelessness. The temple is where they turn when there is nowhere to turn. Israel as a whole was invited to appeal to the High King for help in times of trial, and the text leads us to wonder if every polity directs its hopes toward a temple.

22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. 23 He said, ‘O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart,

41 ‘Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name 42—for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, 43 then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.

“Who teaches your U.S.A. children how to choose their temple? What to love enough not to think two times?”

These questions are posed in the broken English of Remy Maranthe, one of the Wheelchair Assassins who populate David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. After Canada is forced into the trans-national Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.!), secession movements arise in Quebec, the Assassins among them. Maranthe is a double-double agent who reports to Hugh Steeply, a cross-dressing agent for the Office of Unspecified Services. Their surreal conversations often turn philosophical, even theological.

“You are what you love,” Maranthe continues, and if you don’t love something bigger than yourself then your love “bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy.” We all have to choose our temple, become a “fanatic,” which, he reminds Steeply, “comes from the Latin for ‘temple’” and means “literally, ‘worshipper at the temple.’” Maranthe knows that we have to choose our fanaticism carefully, because the choice of temple is everyone’s fundamental choice, the choice that determines all else: “All other of our you say free choices follow from this: what is our temple.” He dismisses Steeply’s suggestion that you can “just love . . . without deciding.” That only makes a temple of the self and sentiment: “Then in such an instance you are a fanatic of desire, a slave to your individual subjective narrow self’s sentiments; a citizen of nothing. . . . You are by yourself and alone, kneeling to yourself” [107-108].

“You are what you love,” Maranthe says. He might have said, “You are what you worship.”

It’s not a question that comes naturally to political actors in modern liberal democracies. We pride ourselves on having founded a polity beyond temples, without sacred center. We have stripped the square so that each can erect the temple of his choosing. We have abandoned fanaticism, tolerating the temple next door so long as we are allowed to worship in peace.

Wallace invites us to pause for a moment in our self-congratulation. Perhaps we are not as temple-free as we like to think. Perhaps refusing fanaticism is not as healthy as we believe. Perhaps we need something that we “would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice.”

Maranthe’s talk of temples and worship poses penetrating questions to modern political order, but in the end he remains safely liberal. He knows that we cannot avoid the sacred, that we all have temples. But he assumes that each will practice a cult of his own devising and honor a god of his own choosing. He assumes a voluntarist polity, in which the most fundamental realities are chosen.

Scripture hints at an even more penetrating, even more challenging, analysis of our political life. The most important of our temples may be the ones we take for granted.

In 1 Kings 8, Solomon prays at the dedication of the Yahweh’s house, which is a political-liturgical complex (I have analyzed 1 Kings 6-8 at more length in my 1-2 Kings [Brazos Theological Commentary; Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006] 53-70). 1 Kings devotes two chapters to the construction of the temple (1 Kings 6-7), chiastically arranged.

At the center of the whole complex is the description of Solomon’s own house. This is sometimes taken as a sign of Solomon’s hubris, but it’s instead a sign of his elevation as Yahweh’s son and prince. The Lord promised David that his son would be Yahweh’s son, and so Yahweh brings the king’s house in the temple area.

Solomon’s palace includes three buildings: the House of the Forest of Lebanon, the hall of pillars, and the hall of judgment (7:1-8). They match the three zones of the temple. Like the temple proper, Solomon’s house is cedar-beamed; like the porch of the temple, the hall of pillars extends fifty cubits from the front of Solomon’s palace; the hall of judgment corresponds to the most holy place, where Yahweh sits enthroned as king and passes divine judgment. As Yahweh’s son, Solomon lives in a house that resembles his Father’s.

More than anything else in 1 Kings, Solomon’s prayer of dedication indicates the purpose of the temple. His prayer is a prayer about prayer, a present prayer asking Yahweh to hear future prayers. He lists various evils that Israel might suffer—defeat before an enemy, drought and famine, pestilence and blight, grasshoppers and invasion, and the ultimate curse of exile, removal from the land that is Yahweh’s gift to His people and the source of their blessed life in His presence.

In each case, he asks Yahweh to direct His eyes and heart toward the temple, so that He will hear the prayers directed there. The temple is a refuge in times of disaster, a communication exchange between heaven and earth, a source of rescue of renewal when Israel is broken and beleaguered.

Solomon prays for Gentile prayers as well:

…when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name—for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built (vv. 41-43)

Israel is a nation of priests, a nation of divine house-keepers. But they keep house on behalf of the nations. Long before Isaiah and Jesus, Solomon’s temple is already a “house of prayer for all nations.”

Yahweh answers Solomon by promising to direct His eyes and heart toward the temple perpetually (9:3), and confirms His acceptance of the king’s prayer by sending fire from heaven to consume the thousands of sacrificial animals piled in the consecrated area of the temple (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:1-3). With the temple, Yahweh has provided a solution to the curses of Deuteronomy: All Israel need do is repent of sin and pray toward the house, where Yahweh’s name dwells, and they will be healed. All they have to do is pray toward the Name, and all will be well.

When Israel turns toward the house of Yahweh, they are also turning toward the house of the king. Yahweh’s rescue sometimes does come through the king, but the Rescuer is the High King, the one enthroned in the temple and not the one enthroned in the hall of judgment.

According to 1 Kings 8, prayer is what Israel is supposed to do in times of helpless hopelessness. The temple is where they turn when there is nowhere to turn. Israel as a whole was invited to appeal to the High King for help in times of trial, and the text leads us to wonder if every polity directs its hopes toward a temple.

Viewing our polity through the lens of 1 Kings 8, it’s not difficult to identify our common temple and the form of our national liturgies. When moderns are afflicted with famine, pestilence, invasion, blight, we direct our prayers toward a house—a Parliament House, a Federal Emergency Management Agency, a Downing Street, a White House. We demand justice not from heaven but from the High Court of Justice, SCOTUS, or one of the myriad international courts. We turn our face not to Jerusalem but to DC or London or Brussels.

Faced with terror, we instinctively enact frenzied rituals of national worship to remind ourselves that, unlike our primitive enemies, we have advanced beyond worship. It’s no accident that many of our public buildings resemble Greco-Roman temples. For we too have our temples.

Maranthe (or Wallace) is right: We are what we love. And he is right that our loves are centered on temples. Our loves are expressed in acts of devotion and worship, in petition and prayer. 1 Kings 8 adds that the temple is also the place we turn for safety from the storm, and suggests that we are all fanatics, whether we choose to be or not. In the end, the most basic of our loves are the loves that are unchosen. Our most sacred temples are the places we turn to without “the thinking twice.”


Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute and an adjunct Senior Fellow of Theology at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho. He is ordained in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). He blogs

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