Notes on Prayer: 1 Kings 8:33-40

1 Kings 8:33-40

Verses 31-32 (discussed in the previous note) dealt with the ritual role of the Temple, in the context of a specific socio-cultural situation. In verses 33-40 that follow, there is a return to the principal theme (and point of emphasis) in the chap. 8 Prayer of Solomon: the Temple as a unifying focal point for the prayers of the people. The idea is that the Israelite people, from every part of the kingdom, should be unified in their focus on the Temple, as the conceptual and symbolic location for the presence of YHWH (specifically, His name). In the vv. 31-32 example, the individuals involved are expected to travel to the Temple precincts in Jerusalem; however, in the examples of vv. 33-40, one simply may look toward (la#) the Temple, praying in the direction of the actual site in Jerusalem.

It is assumed that, while people may respond as individuals, in the face of dangers and crises facing the nation, ultimately the action will be collective—i.e., the entire nation unified in its prayer to YHWH, directing its petition to the place where God’s name symbolically resides.

Three different situations of crisis are given as examples, utilizing a formal pattern (with some variation). The first situation (vv. 33-34) will serve to delineate the elements of the process of the people’s prayer:

“In your people Yisrael being struck before the face of (the) hostile (one), (in) that [i.e. because] they have done wrong to you, and (if) they (then) turn back to you and throw (praise to) your name, and they make prayer and a request for favor to you in this house, then you shall hear (it) in (the) heavens and shall grant forgiveness for (the) wrong of your people Yisrael, and you shall return them to the land that you gave to their fathers.”

The condition is introduced by a construct phrase that is governed by a preposition and verbal noun (infinitive). Literally, it reads “In (the) being struck of your people…”; however, the passive (Niphal stem) verb makes this especially awkward in English, and I alleviate this somewhat above (“In your people being struck…”, i.e. “When your people are struck…”). Clearly, this refers to a military attack by an enemy nation; the verbal noun by@oa literally means “(one) being/acting hostile”, i.e. one who is hostile.

The context of verse 34 implies that the land (and its people) have been conquered by the enemy; this may simply allow for the most extreme example of being “struck” (vb [g~n`) by an enemy nation. However, the idea that the people who would pray are far away (in exile) gives added weight to the principle that, even when the people are dispersed over a great geographic distance, they are still unified in thought and purpose when they pray in the direction of the Temple. The use of the preposition B=, in the expression “in this house” (hZ#h^ ty]B^B^), can be misleading in this regard, since it might suggest that the prayer is to be made within the Temple precincts (as with the example in vv. 31-32). While individuals might, indeed, make prayer at the Temple itself, the real point of emphasis is on praying “in the direction of” the Temple; the preposition B= would then function like la# (“to, toward”). Principally, it is YHWH’s symbolic presence—His name—that resides in the Temple.

The people’s response implies repentance and a return to faithfulness. The verb bWv (“turn (back), return”) is frequently used in this religious-ethical sense. By turning back to God, one also turns away from sin. It is clearly indicated, in this example, that Israel’s defeat is a consequence of the people’s sin. For consistency with vv. 31-32 (cf. the previous study), I have translated the verb af*j* as “do wrong”. In vv. 31-32, a person does wrong to another person; however, here the wrong is done to YHWH, i.e., the sin is against God, implying a violation of the covenant.

It was common in ancient Near Eastern thought to consider military defeats, especially when they involved the destruction of cities and the exile of populations, etc, as a manifestation of divine judgment. The ancient Israelites were no different, and, indeed, the Old Testament typically explains Israel’s defeats in this way. It is an especially prominent theme in the Deuteronomic history, particularly as recorded and presented in the books of Kings. Idolatrous worship of deities other than YHWH is the principal violation of the covenant that brings about catastrophic judgment on the nation.

If the people, collectively, repent of their sin, turn back to YHWH, praising His name and focusing their prayers in the direction of the Temple (where His name dwells), then the expectation is that God will hear and answer their prayers, and will (eventually) restore any exiled populations back to the land. The sin will be forgiven (vb jl^s*), and the covenant bond between YHWH and His people will be restored.

In verses 35-36, a different kind of national crisis is referenced: an extended lack of rain (drought). This is introduced in the same way as the condition in v. 33, with a construct phrase using the preposition B= and a verbal noun (infinitive):

“In (the) closing up of (the) heavens, and there is (thus) no rain, because they have done wrong to you…”

The syntax overall is very similar to the earlier passage; it continues:

“…and (if) they pray to(ward) this standing place [i.e. where the Temple stands], and throw (praise to) your name, and turn back from their wrong (so) that you would answer them, then you shall hear (in) the heavens and shall forgive (the) wrong of your servants, even your people Yisrael…”

There is some variation in wording, but the formula here in the Prayer definitely follows the pattern from vv. 33-34. The expected response by YHWH, however, is given in a more expanded form:

“…(so) that you might instruct them (in) the good way in which they must walk; and you shall give (then the) rain upon your land that you gave to your people for an inheritance.”

Clearly, the drought, like the military defeat/conquest of the people, is viewed as the consequence of sin against YHWH (i.e., violation of the covenant). In the ancient world, for agricultural and pastoral societies, a lack of rain could be just as devastating (and life-threatening) as a military attack. Repentance from sin, accompanied by faithful worship and prayer to YHWH, will bring about a return of the needed rains.

In addition to the restoration of the pre-sin condition (i.e., abundance of rain), mention is made of the idea that YHWH would give instruction/direction (vb hr*y`) to His people, once they have repented, so that they would be able to remain faithful to the covenant in the future. This particular promise underwent development in the later Prophetic writings (of the exilic and post-exilic period), being specifically tied to the role of God’s Spirit in the New Age of Israel’s restoration. The Instruction (Torah) will come to be written on the heart of the people, so that they might fulfill the covenant without needing to be taught or disciplined (as in the past) any longer. For a list of the key Prophetic passages, with links to detailed notes, cf. the introduction to the recent series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”.

The final example (vv. 37-40) involves a famine (lit. “hunger,” bu*r*) in the land. Drought and famine are often closely related; however, life-threatening hunger can be caused by other circumstances, such as a military attack/siege, forced migration, displacement of populations, the shifting of rivers, and so forth. Verse37 actually mentions some of the agricultural conditions that can lead to failed crops (and thus hunger/famine): pestilence/disease, blight, mildew, locust (using two different terms, hB#r=a^ and lys!j*), and the siege (of a city) by a foreign enemy. This suffering from famine/hunger is broadened to include the idea of any “touch” (of disease) or “sickness/weakness” (the terms ug~n# and hl*j&m^, respectively).

Again, prayer to YHWH, directed toward the Temple, will bring forgiveness, and (it is implied) a restoration of healthy conditions. This example does differ from the previous two, as it implies that certain individuals or communities may experience suffering that others do not (v. 38). However, the expectation is that, for anyone who repents and prays earnestly to YHWH in this manner, the prayer will be answered (v. 39). This focus on the individual provides an important counterbalance to the collective/national emphasis in vv. 33-36:

“Indeed, you shall give to (each) man according to his ways, (in) that you know his heart—for you alone know (the) heart of every (one) of (the) sons of man” (v. 39b)

As in verse 36 (see above), Solomon’s prayer here also includes the hope that the Israelite people would learn from any such discipline, however painful, so as to remain faithful to YHWH (and the covenant) into the future:

“…so that they might fear you all the days that they live upon (the) face of the land that you gave to our fathers.” (v. 40)

Next week, as we continue our study on the Prayer (looking at vv. 41-45), we shall begin drawing some exegetical conclusions, based on our analysis thus far, which can be applied to the life-situation of Christian believers today.

August 17: Psalm 78:32-39

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 23-31; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:32-39

Verse 32

“(But even) with all this, they sinned yet (more),
and did not set (their hearts) firm by His wonders.”

As in verse 17, the section opens with a reference to the people’s continued disobedience and sinning (vb af*j*) against YHWH. The thematic refrain allows the Psalmist to progress through different stages of his survey of the history of Israel (in the Exodus period). The “wonders” performed by YHWH include the miraculous ‘raining down’ of bread and meat from heaven (cf. the previous note on vv. 23-31). Yet, even upon witnessing these further miracles, the people did not set their hearts firm (vb /m^a*, Hiphil stem) to trust in YHWH and to follow His Instruction.

Verse 33

“And (so) He made their days end in emptiness,
and their years in (ghostly) fright.”

This couplet summarizes the fate of the generation of the Exodus, nearly all of whom perished in the wilderness without ever entering the Promised Land (Num 14:29, 35; 26:64-65, etc). The parallelism is of their “days” ending in “emptiness” (lb#h#) and their “years” ending in “fright/terror” (hl*h*B#); there is a bit of alliterative wordplay between the nouns lb#h# (he»el) and hl*h*B# (beh¹lâ) that cannot be conveyed in translation. Both terms refer to the prospect of death (and the realm of the dead), as being both frightening and empty (especially for the wicked).

Verse 34

“When He slew them, then they searched (for) Him;
then they returned and sought early (the) Mighty (One).”

Only after enduring fierce judgment from YHWH, did the people repent and return to follow the way of God, at least for a time. This is expressed by the idiom of “searching” (vb vr^D*) after God, being especially common (also with the similar vb rq^B*) in the Psalms, Wisdom literature, and the Prophets. The idea of repentance, indicated here by the used of the verb bWv (“return”), is especially prominent in the Prophetic oracles, calling on the people to “return” to YHWH their God. The diligence of their “searching” is conveyed by the denominative verb rj^v*, which refers to rising early (in the morning) to do something.

Verse 35

“And they remembered that (the) Mightiest (was) their Rock,
and (the) Mighty (One), (the) Highest, their Redeemer.”

The term rWx (“rock”), as a Divine title, refers to El-YHWH as a source of protection for His people. It often alludes to the idea of a place of refuge, located at a secure position high upon a rock. The verbal noun la@G) (“redeeming”) refers to YHWH acting as one who sets His people free from servitude or bondage, like a family member who “redeems” (vb la^G`) his relative by paying the price necessary to secure freedom. In the historical context of the narration here, this salvation-motif certainly refers to the Exodus from Egypt—and the “wonders” performed by YHWH to bring it about.

Verses 36-37

“But (while) they opened to Him their mouth,
they also lied to Him with their tongue;
for their heart was not standing firm with Him,
nor were they fixed on His binding (agreement).”

By these lines it is clear that the people’s return to faithfulness (vv. 34-35, cf. above) was not entirely genuine; they may have been faithful outwardly, saying the right things with their mouth, etc, but inwardly their heart was not right with God. Again the verbs /WK and /m^a* are used to express this idea of faithfulness through the idiom of having one’s heart set firm (cf. vv. 8, 20, 22, 32), i.e., fixed in faith/trust and obedience to God. As in the opening section of the Psalm (cf. the introductory study), and in verse 10, faithfulness to YHWH is defined primarily in terms of fulfilling the binding agreement (tyr!B=, i.e., covenant) established between God and His people Israel.

Verse 38

“But he, (the) Compassionate (One),
wiped away (their) crookedness
and did not destroy (them);
indeed, many (times) He acted to turn away His anger,
and did not rouse all of His burning (rage).”

This is a summary of YHWH’s dealings with His people throughout their history, but particularly during the years of wandering in the Exodus period. He would punish them when they sinned, but ultimately forgave (vb rp^K*, wipe over/away) their perverse heart (lit. “crookedness,” /ou*), so as not to unleash upon them His full anger (and thus destroy them completely).

Metrically, this verse is comprised of a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, followed by a 3-beat (3+3) couplet.

Verse 39

“For He remembered that they (are) flesh—
a wind going (away)
that does not return.”

This section closes, poignantly, with a Wisdom-statement, in the form of a 3+2+2 tricolon. The sentiment expressed here is found frequently in the Psalms and Wisdom literature, emphasizing the fleeting nature of human life and existence, in its mortality. The Wisdom texts often include a call for people to remember this point—e.g., Job 7:6-7; 10:9; Ps 39:4-5f; 89:47; 103:15f; Eccl 11:8; 12:1. For the comparison of human life with the wind, in its ephemeral nature, as it passes quickly and is then gone, cf. Ps 103:16, and the repeated refrain in Ecclesiastes (1:14, 17, et al); the comparison is particularly appropriate as applied to the life and aspirations of the wicked (Job 21:18; 27:21; Ps 1:4; 35:5; 83:3; Prov 11:29; 21:6).

The use of the term rc*B* (“flesh”) echoes the previous section (cf. the previous note on vv. 23-31), with the motif of the “flesh” (i.e., meat) sent down from heaven for the people to eat. Their request was made out of real human need (for food), and thus was based upon the limitations of their mortal human nature (as “flesh”); but it also reflected a faithlessness and lack of trust in God. As pointed out above, for the wicked, in particular, their brief life, after it has passed (like the wind), ends in emptiness (cf. above on v. 33).