1 Kings 8:27-30
With verse 27, the focus of the Prayer shifts to the role and purpose of the Temple. This is significant, since the purpose indicated in the Prayer differs noticeably from the emphasis earlier in vv. 10-13. The shift in emphasis began already in vv. 16-17ff, with the statement that the “house” (i.e., the Temple) was built specifically for the name (<v@) of YHWH. The distinction is between a dwelling for YHWH Himself and a dwelling for His name.
In vv. 10-13 (cf. the earlier study), the clear implication is that YHWH personally comes to dwell in the “house”, being present through the theophanous cloud. This reflects an older line of religious (and theological) tradition, drawing upon anthropomorphic and cosmological-mythic concepts—i.e., the Deity is personally present and manifest in the theophanous cloud, with the Temple building (esp. the sanctuary) serving as His dwelling-place on earth.
While this line of tradition is acknowledged in vv. 10-13, it disappears completely from the remainder of the narrative. Indeed, within the Prayer proper, there is no mention at all of YHWH Himself dwelling in the Temple, but only His name. This is especially clear here in verse 27:
“But (is it) that (the) Mightiest can truly sit [i.e. dwell] upon the earth? See, the heavens—even (the) heavens of the heavens—can not contain you, (and) even (less) that this house which I have built (could do so)!”
The theological point is that the Creator El-YHWH cannot truly, in a metaphysical sense, dwell in a building on earth. His true dwelling is in heaven—and yet, even the heavens cannot actually contain him. The verb lWK has the concrete meaning “contain” (as in a vessel), implying that a physical/material substance is involved. This is one of the clearest statements in the Old Testament Scriptures regarding the transcendence of God, expressed in terms of size. YHWH is simply too great and vast to be contained in any physical space.
The expression “heavens of the heavens” (<y]m^V*h^ ym@v=) is idiomatic; it follows a pattern—e.g., “holy of holies”, “king of kings”, “song of songs” —in Hebrew (and other Semitic languages), using this particular mode of construct expression as a superlative. The particular meaning of the expression here is “the greatest heaven,” “the highest heaven”, etc.
The ancient Near Eastern cosmology was geocentric, with the surface of the earth dividing a cosmos that tended to be seen as spherical in shape, the upper half certainly being hemispheric. There were layers—commonly three layers (i.e., three ‘heavens’)—to the upper hemisphere. Eventually the concept of a concentric spherical cosmos, with seven layers/heavens, came to be adopted on a widespread scale throughout the ancient world. According to this traditional cosmology, YHWH would be seen as dwelling in the ‘highest’ heaven.
Clearly, if YHWH cannot be contained in the vastness of the heavens, he certainly cannot be contained in a single building (built by human beings) on earth. In spite of this, Solomon continues:
“Yet may you turn to (the) prayer of your servant, and to his request for favor, O YHWH my Mighty (One), to listen to (the) cry and to (the) prayer which your servant prays before you th(is) day, (and for) your eyes to be opened to(ward) this house, night and day, to(ward) this standing place of which you said ‘My name shall be there’, (and) to listen to (the) prayer which your servant shall pray to(ward) this standing place.” (vv. 28-29)
The basic request, at the heart of the entire prayer, is that YHWH would pay attention to prayers made in the direction of (la#, “toward”) the Temple. As becomes clear in the remainder of the prayer, the Jerusalem Temple is to become the focal point of Israelite worship—in particular, for the prayers made by the people. Solomon (as king) represents the people in this regard. At the beginning of the request (in v. 28), Solomon refers to himself as YHWH’s loyal servant (“your servant”); but, at the close of the request (in v. 29), the same expression “your servant” stands for any faithful Israelite who prays to YHWH (as is clear from v. 30, cf. below).
There is a symbolic and ritual aspect to prayer, in relation to the Temple building. The location of the Temple (lit. its “standing place,” <oqm*, i.e., the place where it stands) has a unifying role for the people, and as a religious expression of their faith and devotion to YHWH. By praying in the direction of the Temple, the place where YHWH’s name dwells, this demonstrates that a person’s heart is directed toward God. Such prayer can be made at any time (“night and day”); according to Solomon’s request, YHWH’s eyes will constantly be open, attentive to any such prayer, and listening to (lit. hearing, vb um^v*) it. In the traditional religious idiom, for God to “hear” a prayer means that He will answer it.
The root llp is used several times in vv. 28-29, both the verb (ll^P*) and the related noun hL*p!T=; it is the basic Hebrew root denoting prayer to God. Prayer here is also defined specifically as a request made to God that He would show favor—i.e., respond favorably, giving help and bestowing blessing or benefits, etc. The noun signifying such a request is hN`j!T= (from the root /nj), which is formally parallel to hL*p!T=. Another word used is hN`r!, which means a ringing cry or shout; it can connote either a desperate plea (i.e., cry for help), a joyful expression of praise, or a confident shout (of triumph, etc).
From a theological standpoint, it is most significant that it is YHWH’s name, specifically, which “dwells” in the Temple. While YHWH Himself dwells in the heavens, His name dwells on earth among His people. In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represented and embodied (in a quasi-magical way) the essence and nature of the person. This was equally true in a religious context, when applied to a deity; to know a deity’s name meant knowing the deity. This name-theology represented a more abstract and rational/intellectual way for a person to relate to a deity. In this regard, it is particularly meaningful that YHWH’s name is related to the act of prayer. This is the aspect of the Temple’s purpose that is being emphasized here, rather than its role in the sacrificial ritual, for example.
The name of YHWH was important in Israelite religious tradition from the earliest times, but the name-theology took on special prominence in the book of Deuteronomy (and the subsequent Deuteronomic History, of which 1-2 Kings is a part). Beginning in chapter 12 (vv. 5, 11, 21), and then throughout the book of Deuteronomy, the implicit location of Jerusalem (and the Temple site) is repeatedly referenced as the place chosen by YHWH to set His name. The names of the Canaanite deities are to be removed from the land (Deut 12:3), replaced entirely by the name of YHWH, the one true Creator God, with whom Israel is joined in a special covenant-bond. His name is thus closely connected with the covenant, as is clear implicitly from the references here in vv. 9, 21. The people belong to Him, and this is symbolized by the Temple which bears His name, indicating a sign of ownership, etc. God’s faithful vassals (“servants”) will pray in the direction of the Temple—that is, toward His name—as a sign of covenant loyalty and devotion to their Sovereign.
The people, collectively, as YHWH’s servant(s), are emphasized in verse 30:
“May you indeed listen to (the) request of your servant for favor, and of your people Yisrael, when they shall pray to(ward) this standing place; you shall listen at (the) place of your sitting [i.e. dwelling] (in) the heavens, and (when) you listen you shall forgive.”
As noted above, the expression “your servant” refers not only to the king, but to the people as a whole; this point is made quite clear here in v. 30. Solomon’s request is that whenever the people pray toward the Temple, YHWH will respond favorably to them, answering their prayers, even to the point of forgiving (vb jl^s*) their sins.
The preposition la# has a dual-meaning in this verse; on the one hand, the directional aspect of praying “to(ward)” the Temple is in view (continued from vv. 28-29), but in the second half of the verse it also is used in the locative sense of YHWH’s dwelling in the heavens. This dual-use may be intentional, as a subtle way of juxtaposing the dwelling-place of YHWH’s name (i.e., the Temple) with the place where He Himself dwells (in heaven). For more on this, see the discussion above.
In the verses that follow (vv. 33-44), a number of examples are given of circumstances under which the people might pray to God, using the Temple as their religious focal-point. In the next study, we will begin examining these.