Notes on Prayer: 1 Kings 8:54-61

1 Kings 8:54-61

With the conclusion of Solomon’s prayer to YHWH (cf. the previous study) in verse 53, it is narrated that the king “stood up” (vb <Wq), from the position of worship in which he had delivered the prayer (according to v. 54): i.e., kneeling before the altar, with his hands (lit. palms) “spread out” toward the heavens. Such a gesture with the hands (cp. verses 22, 38) is a traditional element of worship and prayer, indicating a person’s devotion to God (cf. Job 11:13; Psalm 44:21[20]; 143:6; Isa 1:15). The additional act of kneeling reflects an attitude of submission, prostrating oneself before God, as one would before royalty. Solomon, though king, acknowledges YHWH as his Sovereign; this idea of the king as a faithful/loyal vassal to God (and to the covenant) is a vital component of the Israelite/Judean royal theology. Solomon’s position in prayer, kneeling with hands outstretched to heaven, is matched by Ezra in 9:5ff, where he likewise prays to YHWH as a leader representing the people.

In vv. 56-61, Solomon blesses the gathering of the people, much in the manner of the blessing to be uttered by the priests during times of public worship and sacrifice (cf. Lev 9:22-23; Num 6:23-27; cp. the setting in Lk 1:10, 21-22). The blessing is introduced as follows:

“And he stood (there) and blessed all (the) assembly of Yisrael (with) a great voice, saying…” (v. 55)

The verb Er^B* is usually translated “bless”, but it can also be synonymous with the verb ur^K*, used in v. 54, meaning “bend the knee, kneel”. The noun Er#B# means “knee”, and it has been thought that the verb Er^B* may be denominative, derived from this noun; more likely, perhaps, is that the range of meaning reflects a fundamental connection between the act of kneeling and the receiving of a blessing. In any case, Er^B* only rarely carries the strict meaning “kneel” in the Old Testament; in the vast majority of the 330 occurrences, it refers to the utterance of words intended to bring well-being and prosperity (i.e., blessing), or to the bringing about of such a condition of well-being.

The spoken blessing, like the curse (cf. the prior note on v. 31-32), had a quasi-magical character in ancient Near Eastern thought—i.e., the blessing uttered in speech was expected to come to pass. In the context of a binding agreement (covenant), where blessing and curse formulas were utilized, it was thought that the blessings would ensue if the agreement was upheld, while the curses would be realized if the agreement was violated. Cf. the famous examples in Deuteronomy 27-28.

There can be little doubt that the blessing uttered here by Solomon has adherence to the covenant in mind. This is clear by the way that the blessing is framed. The first part features a series of jussive verb forms, indicating what the speaker wishes and expects God will do for the people (vv. 57-58), while the blessing closes (v. 61) with a similar expression of what he expects from the people. This reflects the two sides of the binding agreement, where each side has an obligation to fulfill. The initial blessing, directed toward YHWH (v. 56), establishes the faithfulness that He has shown toward Israel in the past, throughout the people’s history (cf. vv. 15-20, 23-24, 51-53):

“Blessed [EWrB*] (be) YHWH, who has given a place of rest for His people Yisrael, according to all that He spoke—not one word has fallen from all of His good word that He spoke by (the) hand of Moshe His servant.”

The expectation is that YHWH will continue to be faithful to the covenant, and this expectation is expressed through the jussive forms in verse 57:

    • “May He be [yh!y+]…with us, according to the (way) that He was with our fathers—
      may He not leave us [Wnb@z+u^y~-la^]
      and not forsake us [Wnv@F=y]-la^]—”

The continued presence of YHWH with His people reflects the covenant bond—He is their God and they are His people—whereby He will provide both blessing and protection to them. The portion indicated by the ellipsis (…) in the translation above emphasizes this relationship: “YHWH our Mighty (One) [i.e. God]”.

The purpose of this supervising Divine presence is stated in verse 58, through a series of infinitives, comparable to the jussives in v. 57:

    • to make our hearts bend toward Him,
      (for us) to walk in all His ways
      and to guard His commands… which He commanded our fathers”

YHWH’s gracious presence will enable the people to remain faithful, preserving the covenant bond. And yet, the people themselves are still obligated to fulfill their side of the agreement, since God’s presence will not remain if they do not also stay faithful/loyal to him. This is the expectation for the people spoken at the close of the blessing (v. 61); note the formal parallel with verse 57:

    • May YHWH our Mighty (One) be with us…”
    • “And may your heart be complete [<l@v*] with YHWH our Mighty (One)…”

The same imperfect (jussive) of the verb of being/becoming (hy`h*) is used, along with the preposition <u! (“with”). If the people’s collective “heart” is complete(ly) (<l@v*) with YHWH, then He will be with them. The root <lv is frequently used in the context of the covenant, alluding to one’s (complete) loyalty and the fulfillment of one’s obligation. In particular, the people are to observe the terms of the covenant, represented by the various regulations and precepts in the Torah; the same language from v. 58 is used again here:

“…to walk in His decrees, and to guard His commands, as (on) th(is) day.” (v. 61b)

By assembling in Jerusalem for the festival, in an attitude of worship and devotion, the people are showing themselves faithful; the hope and expectation is that they will continue to do so, in all matters, in the future.

The central portion of the blessing occurs in the intervening verses 59-60, where the same wish—again expressed through an imperfect/jussive form of the verb hy`h*—is applied to the words of the Prayer itself:

“And may my words, these (by) which I have made request for favor before YHWH, be near to YHWH our Mighty (One), day and night, (for Him) to make (good the) just (cause) of His servant, and (the) just (cause) of His people Yisrael—(each) word of a day in its day—so (as) for all (the) people of the earth to know [i.e. that they might know] that YHWH, He (is) the Mightiest, (and that) there is no (one) else!”

The blessing for the people thus entails YHWH’s favorable response to their prayers, the expectation of which is laid out in vv. 30-53. Justice (fP*v=m!) will be done for the people in accordance with the rightness and faithfulness of their prayer, in every situation, as it might come about each day. The blessing that YHWH will show to His people, when the covenant bond is maintained, ultimately will lead other nations and peoples to turn toward the God of Israel, recognizing and worshiping Him as “the Mightiest” [<yh!l)a$h*]—the Creator and one true God.

Next week, we will bring this study on the Prayer of Solomon to a close, examining the conclusion of the chapter (vv. 62-66) as well as drawing together some of the insights to be gleaned from the passage, regarding prayer, that might relate to our circumstances as believers in Christ today.


February 15: Song of Songs 1:2-3

Song of Songs 1:2-4

The first poetic unit of the Song is 1:2-4, and may itself represent a short love poem. In it a young woman expresses her love for a certain young man.

The grammatical changes in speech, between 2nd and 3rd person, or from singular to plural, have been troublesome for commentators. Modern scholars have been inclined to emend the text to make the wording consistent. These shifts have also been used in support of different dramatic interpretations of the Song, involving a wider set of characters. However, these sorts of explanations are not necessary, since shifts in person and number (and even gender) are typical of Near Eastern poetry, and of love poetry in particular. Even so, the use of the plural at the end of verses 3 and 4 requires special comment.

Verses 2-3

“May he kiss me from (the) kisses of his mouth!
For your loving (caresse)s (are) more good than wine,
good (also with regard) to (the) breath of your oils;
(as fine) turaq oil (is) your (very) name—
upon this (do the) maidens love you!”

The initial verb is an imperfect jussive form from the root qv^n`, “kiss”, derived from the rudimentary idea of pressing lips together. The jussive usually indicates volition—i.e., what someone wishes, desires, requests, etc, should happen. It is a 3rd person form (“may he kiss me…”), in spite of the shift to the second person address in the next line. As noted above, this sort of thing is quite common in Near Eastern love poetry; the use of the third person is typically a feature that suggests the more formal aspects of courtship and romance (with honorific elements). There may be a bit of wordplay due to the similarity between yn]q@V*y] (yišš¹q¢nî, “…kiss me”) and yn]q@v=y~ (yašq¢nî, “…make me drink”, from the root hqv). This certainly would be appropriate for the connection between kisses and wine here in the poem.

There is actually a chain of poetic associations at work. From touching the lips (“kisses”) we move to the more general image of “loving (caresse)s” (i.e., acts and gestures [touches] of love-making). These are characterized as “good” (adj. bof), in the sense of being precious, desirable, and ‘sweet’. This ‘sweetness’ applies both to taste (the metaphor of wine) and scent (lit. “breath”, j^Wr)—in this case, the wafting fragrance of perfumed oil. Then there is another pivot on the general image of fragrant oil to (apparently) a very specific kind of aromatic oil, indicated by the obscure word qr^WT (tûraq). This word has been derived from the root qWr (“empty, pour out”), in which case the idea would be of fragrant oil that has been emptied out of its container so that the aroma fills the room (cf. John 12:3). However, Pope (p. 300) notes evidence from the Ugaritic texts (cf. Gordon, UT 145, 19.371) that mentions trqm along with oil and wine, etc, in a list of luxury items. The Qumran manuscript 6QCant at this point is fragmentary, but the word begins –rm, and has been reconstructed as tjqrm, referring to a (perfumed) ointment mixed with spices (cf. 1 Chron 9:30, 39).

The consonantal text iydd, vocalized ;yd#D) by the Masoretes, could alternately be read as ;yD#D^. The MT has the noun doD (“love”), while, in the latter case, the word would be dD^ (“breast”), and the LXX translation (followed by the Vulgate) does have “your breasts” (mastoi sou) here in verse 2. Since it is a female personage who is speaking of her male lover (rather than the other way around), almost certainly doD is correct. The plural form (<yd!oD) here could refer to acts/gestures of (sexual) love, or, perhaps more likely, as an instance of an intensive (or comprehensive) plural—i.e., “your great/precious love”. Since the idea of touching is very much in view (in light of the “kisses” in line 1), I have rendered the word in the sense of her lover’s caresses.

The reference to the lover’s name (<v@) must be understood in terms of ancient Near Eastern views regarding names. In something of a quasi-magical sense, a person’s name embodied the essence and character of the person. Thus, it is not simply the mention of the young man’s name that delights the woman; rather, she is referring to the young man himself. By “your name” we should understand something like “all that you are”. For more on the subject of names and naming in the ancient world, cf. my earlier series “And You Shall Call His Name…”. There is a bit of wordplay here based on the similarity between <v@ (š¢m, “name”) and /m#v# (šemen, “oil”).

The reference to “maidens” (plur. of hm*l=u^) in the final line has caused commentators some difficulty. Is the speaker actually addressing other young women, or is it meant as a poetic device? On the one hand, in the setting of the poem, the female protagonist does group herself with the other young women of her community. This simply reflects the cultural milieu of the time. On the other hand, the “we” implicit in the plural collection of “maidens” may simply be a way for the character to position herself in relation to the young man, and as a way of emphasizing his excellence and beauty. This will be discussed further in the next note (on verse 4).

The root <lu (here in the feminine noun hm*l=u^) typically is used in reference to young, vital, vigorous person—often implying a youth (male or female) who is coming into his/her sexual maturity and awareness. Thus the term is quite fitting for the love poetry of the Song. On the famous use of hm*l=u^ in the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy, consult my earlier study.

Jewish and Christian Interpretation

An example of allegorical interpretation of the Song can be seen in the Aramaic Targum on these verses. A paraphrastic, and often highly interpretive, translation, the Targum understands the “kisses” of v. 2 in terms of God giving the Law (Torah) to Israel. Through the Law, and the intermediary of Moses, YHWH “…spoke to us face to face as a man kisses his companion, from the abundance of the love with which he loved us, more than the seventy nations” (Pope, p. 299). The Great Midrash (Midrash Rabbah) on the Song of Songs similarly interprets the kisses, etc, in terms of the Torah, the Tabernacle and sacrificial offerings, Moses and the Patriarchs, and other aspects of Israel’s history and religion. Again, it is God’s love for Israel that is primarily in view, and the “oil” allows Israel to become a light for the other nations of the world (I.21).

Origen composed what would seem to be the earliest (surviving) Christian commentary on the Song, and, in his introductory comments, he makes quite clear that his interpretation represents a combination of the allegorical and mystical-spiritual approaches. In his words, “…the Bride and Bridegroom [i.e., the young lovers] denote either the Church in her relation to Christ, or the soul in her union with the Word of God”. Though he gives a cursory exposition of the ‘literal’ sense for each passage, Origen focuses primarily on the ‘inner meaning’ (that is, the allegorical or mystical sense). The “kiss” thus represents the enlightening of the purified soul by the Word of God, and similarly for the “breasts” ([cf. above] = the heart), and the “ointment”, and so forth.

Gregory of Nyssa, in his beautiful cycle of sermons on the Song, follows a comparable mode of interpretation, though he tends to give greater emphasis to the mystical side:

“…the smell of the divine perfumes does not proceed from the smell of our nostrils but from a spiritual faculty which draws in the sweet odor of Christ by an inhalation of the Spirit” (Daniélou, p. 156)

As an example from his sermon on verses 2-3, we may note how he compares the ‘milk’ that comes from the Divine breast (i.e., the Word/Wisdom of God), and how far superior it is to the ‘wine’ of human wisdom. “Hence it is that the divine breasts are better than human wine, and the smell of the divine ointments is sweeter than all other perfumes” Daniélou, p. 157). The ‘ointments’ in particular are interpreted as the virtues, those attributes which represent the finest (highest) part of the human soul—and yet, even they pale in comparison with “the perfect virtue that dwells in heaven”, which is “essential wisdom, essential justice, essential truth, and… offers an incomparable happiness in contrast with the ointments of this world which we know”.

References above marked “Pope” are to Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 7C (1977).
Quotations of Origen’s Commentary are taken from Origen: The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies, translated and annotated by R. P. Lawson, Ancient Christian Writers vol. 26 (Newman [Paulist] Press: 1956)
Quotations of Gregory of Nyssa’s sermon cycle (here) come from Jean Daniélou, S. J., From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, translated and edited by Herbert Musurillo, S. J. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001).