The Bible in a Year – 26 September

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26 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 5-7

Solomon has now completed the Temple, and we come to the grand dedication service.  This was far more than the king and high priest blessing the building and declaring it open for worship: anyone of any significance was in Jerusalem for the occasion, and the celebrations went on for a week, with over a hundred thousand animals being sacrificed (and eaten, presumably).

Solomon’s prayer in chapter 6 is worthy of note.  He is kneeling (not standing) on a platform three cubits (about 1.5 metres) high so that everyone could see him. Why kneeling? It is a traditional posture in prayer (although other traditions favour standing, sitting or prostration in prayer). This week there has been a lot in the media about American sportsmen kneeling during the playing of their national anthem – are they to be criticised for “showing disrespect for their country”, or applauded for drawing attention to racial inequality?  In kneeling, they are perhaps trying to show respect for their country by showing respect for its citizens.  Solomon’s kneeling is certainly intended at least partly to indicate humility before God, but perhaps also to show that he intends to be a ‘servant king’ who respects his people.  He would not be entirely successful in that, of course – what national leader ever can? But he seems to have genuinely tried to be the wise and benevolent monarch.

In a series of formulaic prayers, Solomon recounts the various ways in which God punishes his people for their sin – military defeat, invasion, drought, crop disease, plague, sickness. He asks God to forgive those who acknowledge their sin in each of these circumstances and turn to him.

We do not think about sin and punishment in this way any longer, as we understand defeat and invasion to be the work of men, not God, and the other disasters to be ‘natural’ (though capable of mitigation with good planning and education).   But for those who believe in God, the principle remains that if we turn to him when things go wrong, then he will help us.  Belief in self-sufficiency and self-righteousness are the exact opposite of faith; it is when we express our need of divine help that we can be open to receive it.

There is a notable passage in 6:32-33, where Solomon asks God to treat foreigners with faith in the same way as the people of the promise.  Though Judaism is often thought of as a closed or tribal religion, unlike the missionary religions of Christianity and Islam, the idea of the ‘righteous gentile’ or proselyte who asks to join the people of Israel in their faith is a long-standing one.  Their God, and ours, is a god of inclusion, not exclusion.

The Bible in a Year – 25 September

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25 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 1-4

If 1 Chronicles was mostly about the reign of King David, the second part of the work is mostly about the reign of Solomon. It starts with the building of the Temple, with which David had charged him.

If there is one thing that stands out to me reading this, it is that the world of the ancient near east – known from the earliest times for its trade routes – suddenly seems to have become much more commercialised. This is summarised in 1:15 as “The king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar [a Lebanese import] as plentiful as the sycomore of the Shephelah.”  Going by the English translation, words such as “import” and “export” appear, possibly for the first time in the Bible.

To achieve such a project, which was four years in the planning before construction started (3:2), required significant international trade.  Solomon negotiated with Hiram (or Huram) of Tyre for supplies of large quantities of timber, with payment in cereals, oil and wine.  The chief craftsman was also recruited from Tyre, and was of mixed race – Huram-Abi, “the son of one of the Danite women, his father a Tyrian” (2:13).  Gone, it seems, was any sense of God’s people needing to keep themselves pure by not mixing with foreigners.  Economic progress tends to go hand-in-hand with international trade, and with migration of labour as an essential adjunct.  Which is why it seems to me (if I may be permitted a political statement) crazy to think that Britain leaving the EU and restricting migration could ever be economically beneficial.

The Temple may have had a mainly religious purpose, but its benefits in terms of economic growth, international co-operation and technical expertise were enormous.  Solomon’s request to God for wisdom and skill in managing the Temple project and ruling his growing nation was indeed rewarded, as God promised him, with unsought riches.

But that is not to say it benefited everyone in the land. More controversially to our eyes, the Temple was to be built with conscripted labour.  A census identified 153,600 aliens (immigrants) in the land, and all of them were conscripted either as quarrymen, builders or overseers thereof.  Probably not quite slaves, but ‘bonded labour’ might be a reasonable term, and the overseers were also recruited from their own communities rather than Israelites, much as the ‘gangmasters’ in charge of large numbers of immigrant labourers in the UK today – who often lack fair wages and other legal rights as a result.

The Bible in a Year – 24 September

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24  September. 1 Chronicles chapters 28-29

David, we are told at the end of chapter 29, had reigned as king for forty years.  Unlike many monarchs who reign until their death (as our own Queen Elizabeth has indicated she intends to do), David decided to stage a deliberate handover to his son Solomon while he was still in good health.  Partly this was for practical reasons – having many sons, and remembering the previous revolt by his son Absalom, there could have been a civil war between then after his death if he had not nominated a successor.  But also, as we read yesterday, God had told David that Solomon was the one in whose reign the Temple should be built.  This was David’s grand project, so the sooner Solomon was on the throne, the sooner building could begin.  We are told that Solomon was still “young and inexperienced” (29:1):  we are not told what age he was, but it requires more than a degree of maturity to oversee such a large project.

Israelite society at this time seems not to have had money as we know it today: metals such as gold and silver were used as common currency, along with animals and agricultural produce.  So in order to provide for the Temple large amounts of these were given, by David personally, from the treasury (presumably representing the tithes of common people), and from members of the establishment (tribal leaders, military commanders and officials).  Some of the gold and silver would have been used directly for the sacred vessels and decoration of the Temple; but much would have been used in payment for other materials and labour.  David set an example by giving freely of his own riches, to encourage others to do so.

This principle of the ‘freewill offering’ or ‘sacrificial giving’ is often quoted by Church leaders when money is needed for some building project or missionary endeavour.  Part of the prayer that follows is still used in church services today as a response to the weekly offering: “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours … all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.” (29:11-14).

The following verse in Chronicles reminds us also that we can keep nothing earthly: “For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.”  In other words, earthly riches mean nothing to God. The divine being cannot use money or gold, although they are given in his name for work that is carried out in his name, but then neither are money and possessions any use to us when we die.  The only things we can do with them in our will are leave them to our children or friends, or give them to what we believe to be some other good cause. So as long as we have enough to live on, any extra may as well be given away sooner or later.


The Bible in a Year – 23 September

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23 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 26-27

Following the previous chapters with detailed lists of Temple servants, come lists of other people with public duties (civil servants and judges), military leadership, or positions within the royal household.  The military commanders, each with 24,000 men, were allocated a month each: presumably this was a form of territorial army, in which able men were expected to leave their usual lives for one month of the year and do (unpaid?) national service.

I never cease to be amazed that this highly organised society, with detailed written records, existed in Israel (and other parts of the world such as Babylon and China) a thousand years before the time of the Romans, and two thousand years before England had anything remotely similar under the Normans.  It is something of pride for someone today to be able to spend years researching family history and say “my ancestor was a knight” but for Jewish people at the time Chronicles was written, they could more easily trace their descent back, hopefully as far as Abraham.

A people with a recorded history has so much to learn from – including the mistakes of their ancestors, as well as their successes.  One thing that worries me about today’s society is that although the Internet may have made it easier to do family history, there is also increasingly a loss of communal identity, not least in religion.  What Abraham, or David, or Jesus and his disciples, did is still relevant today, and so is the history of our own country and its leaders, but increasingly few people understand that, and live only for the experiences of the moment.


The Bible in a Year – 22 September

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22 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 24-25

This passage consists of the rotas of different extended families in the service of the Temple.  The names mean nothing to us now, but clearly it was important at the time that the whole of the tribe of Levi had been set apart centuries earlier as dedicated to leading public worship and administration, and all that went with it.   Nowadays we would call it nepotism or discrimination, but that was their culture.

Just one verse stands out for me: “David and the officers of the army also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who were to prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals.” (25:1).  We tend to think of “prophesy” as inevitably a matter of speaking words: words given by God, either in one’s own language or (in “charismatic” churches) sometimes in a spiritual language that has to be interpreted by others equally but differently gifted.  Words of prophesy might be given to encourage people in faith, to warn them that they are going wrong, or occasionally to foretell the future.

But here, prophesy seems to be equated with playing musical instruments.  Music was clearly a very important part of the worship of the Temple, and we still have the words (though not the tunes) passed down to us in the form of Psalms. Many of the psalms themselves exhort people to praise God with music.  It is well known that singing has many benefits, both in terms of personal health (aiding relaxation and coping with stress, for example), and in uniting people in a sense of belonging together by singing together.

Singing hymns and psalms, in particular, helps people to remember and respond to the scriptures and creeds that the church passes down from one generation to the next: call out to me “O Lord open thou our lips” and I will respond with “and our mouth shall show forth thy praise” to the chant used by Anglicans for nearly 500 years.

But even instrumental music can be of spiritual benefit, as this verse reminds us.  It influences moods to a great extent, and through association helps people to remember places and events, and the words, thoughts or feelings that went with them.  So the playing of music in a pace of worship is “prophecy” to the extent that those hearing it will be reminded of previous times of worship, or of words of scripture. Or it may just be gentle music that calms us and makes us open to meditation and prayer.  Play on, Heman and Jeduthun!


The Bible in a Year – 21 September

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21 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 21-23

Much of what will follow these chapters concerns the building of the Temple.  Chapters 21 and 22 provide the “back story” to it construction (written several hundred years later, so presumably passed down orally until then).

We already know from chapter 17 that God had told David that the Temple was to be built in his son’s lifetime and not his own.  But David, following the letter if not the spirit of God’s command, decided as an old man to start on collecting the materials and labour for the work before his death.  But where to build it?

The story in chapter 21 of the angel at the threshing floor of Ornan raises some interesting ideas.  David is tempted by Satan to take a census with the implied intention of starting another military campaign, and is punished by God for doing so.  These days only a minority of Christians believe in Satan as a real and powerful personality (but those who do, take him very seriously).  Rather more will admit the existence of spirits or angels generally, and I know a few people who claim to have seen angels. But they tend to appear to individuals with a personal message or practical support in times of danger.  The angel in this passage is different – the “destroying angel” sent by God to bring a plague on Jerusalem as punishment for David’s hubris, and visible to all who would look up and see it.  With sufficient penitence shown by David and others, God relents and spares the city. The personal cost to David of his sin was the gold with which he bought the site of the angelic appearance to build an altar.

Whatever this visible angel might have been, and whatever we are to understand by the battle for a human soul between God and Satan (as in the book of Job), the consequences were enormous.  Israel moved in the following generations from being a nation with many localised altars as centres of worship to a centralised system with one huge Temple in Jerusalem.  David acknowledged that the period of warfare over which he had presided was at an end, and instructed Solomon to reign in peace.  And from that day to this, the site of the threshing floor of Ornan has been a place of pilgrimage for millions, whether as Jewish Temple or (in its current form as the Dome of the Rock) for Muslims.

Perhaps the lesson from this is that, at a time of crisis, God will act in whatever way in necessary to guide people towards doing his will.  In none of this is there any sense of compulsion: David could have ignored the words of the prophet Gad and carried on with rearmament, probably with disastrous consequences; he could have chosen one of God’s other punishment options (famine or defeat in battle), probably losing the kingship as a result; he could have ignored the presence of the angel (as Ornan did initially), in which case presumably Jerusalem would have suffered the plaque, again with severe consequences for the whole country.

But David was a man of faith. Although he sinned by letting Satan tempt him to a wrong action at the start of the story (not that Satan appeared to him visibly; his temptations are more subtle than that), he knew when God was speaking to him, whether by prophets, angels or through religious laws, and he obeyed.  So the future of God’s people was assured for another generation.

The Bible in a Year – 20 September

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20 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 18-20

Following on from the rejoicing of previous chapters, we are suddenly plunged back into the bloodiness of the warfare that was a constant feature of the ancient near east.  God’s promise to David that he would make him the leader of a great nations seems to be coming true, as one tribe after another (Philisitines, Moabites, Arameans, Edomites and Ammonites) falls to the armies of Israel.   Since the time of Joshua this had been an ongoing process, and even after David’s victories, the other peoples were not completely eliminated.

The tactics they employ are sometimes clever strategies, at other times sheer force of numbers.  But what links these victories is the concept they have of God being with them and granting them victory for his sake.  The purpose of Israel’s territorial control being enlarged was not merely to give God’s people room to expand, but to eradicate the idolatrous religions that went with the inhabitants of the land.

Sadly, we can see this worldview today in the actions of the present state of Israel is forcing Jewish settlements on land that according to international agreement belongs to the Palestinians.  The same process of driving out the “peoples of the land” by military force, by settlement in large numbers, by seizure of farmland, by controlling water supplies, and so on, is justified (in the eyes of some Jews at least) by the actions of David and other kings in their ancient history.  Without wishing to see the extinction of the Jewish faith and culture, one has to be critical of the way they are going about preserving them.

The Bible in a Year – 19 September

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19 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 16-17

Most of this passage is taken up with David’s psalm of praise at the dedication of the tent of the Ark; most of the text of it appears elsewhere as Psalms 96 and 105. See my commentary for 15 & 16 July.

The remainder is about how David first thought, and the prophet Nathan confirmed his thinking, that it would be right to build a “house for God” no less splendid than his own.  That may appear sensible – for to put one’s own needs before the will of God is to break the first commandment (to worship nothing other than God).  But God revealed to Nathan that this was in fact a sinful strategy, for to regard a fixed location for worship as “God’s house” is to start down the road of idolatry, thus breaking the second commandment (not to have any image of God).

A temple or church that is seen as the “exclusive” location of the divine becomes a focus of worship in itself.   But true worship of God is always outward-looking: it has been said (by the theologian David Bosch among others) that mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an activity of God undertaken through the church.  As soon as we take our thinking away from God and what God’s mission might be, and start focussing on “the church” (building), or the objects in the church that might represent God, we lose sight of the purpose of the Church (body of God’s people).

It was not that there was never to be a “house of God” in Jerusalem. In the following verses God tells David that his son (Solomon, though not named here) would indeed build it.  But it would have been wrong for David to do so, for God’s purpose for David was to strengthen the identity of the nation of Israel and their worship. For that, they needed to have an understanding that God was everywhere among them and not restricted to the Temple or the Holy City (as other near eastern cultures would have believed).


The Bible in a Year – 18 September

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18 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 13-15

These chapters tell of the two-stage journey of the Ark of the Covenant from its previous resting place to a new home in David’s new capital of Jerusalem.  The capture of Jerusalem had been the last major objective in the occupation of the Holy Land (Canaan), and it had been many generations, perhaps a few hundred years, since the people of Israel had first crossed the Jordan to being the process.

So it is understandable that David wanted to consolidate this victory. When one tribe or ethnic group overcomes another and establishes control if its territory, capturing its strongholds, it is usual to strengthen defences, build a palace and so on.  David certainly built his “house” which was no doubt a luxury compared with the dwellings of ordinary people, but probably nowhere near as large as Solomon’s later palace.  Likewise, it was to be another generation before Solomon built the Temple; yet David thought it important that his new capital should house the Ark, as a symbol of God’s presence, even if for the time being it had to be kept in a tent.

This Ark (not to be confused with Noah’s floating zoo) reputedly held nothing other than the stones inscribed with the Law of Moses, plus Aaron’s staff, and a sample of the miraculous manna from the desert.  These represented, in terms of what we would now call the sociology of religion, the relationship between God and his people being expressed through ethical standards, organised worship and shared meals.

But there was also the element of the miraculous: God had given the laws to Moses in a series of awesome appearances; Aaron’s staff had produced buds from a dry stick and even turned into a snake; and the manna had appeared from heaven every morning (apart from the Sabbath) for years. Any community can be identified and sustained by certain standards, rituals and meals, but what set the Israelites apart was that they believed theirs were all given by God.


The Bible in a Year – 17 September

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17 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 11-12

The anointing of David is followed in chapter 11 by an account of the exploits of David and his band of elite warriors (the “Three” and the “Thirty”) – maybe an early version of the SAS, highly trained men who were sent in to situations regarded as too dangerous for ordinary troops.

There is an interesting incident in 11:15-19 where some of these elite soldiers go to fetch water from the well in David’s home town of Bethlehem, currently under enemy occupation.  David is no doubt grateful for the gesture, just as people in exile or expatriates will request some familiar food from their home country. He would also have been proud of their achievement, but feels unable to drink the water that has been required such risk-taking.  Instead he pours it out on the ground as an offering back to God.  What gifts have you ever received that you felt unable to receive, or unworthy to enjoy?

Chapter 12 lists the troops from all the tribes of Israel – over 340,000 of them – who amassed around David in order to support his claim as pretender to Saul’s throne. Saul was the ‘rightful’ leader who had developed dementia – see my comments earlier in the year – and turned against David to persecute him.  Such a large rebel army inspired by religious zeal could only cause problems all round, as we have witnessed with the rise of radical groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh.  From that perspective it is hard to have sympathy with David and his band, even although he is regarded by Jews (and therefore to some extent by Christians) as a spiritual hero.