The Bible in a Year – 27 September

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

27 September 2017. 2 Chronicles chapters 8-10

Chapter 9 records the extent to which Solomon became not only wise, but rich and powerful.  The written record makes no apologies in explaining that he achieved this at least in part by enslaving the remaining indigenous people in the land, and conquering adjoining territories.  The following chapter shows how, soon after his death, most of his own people ‘came out’ to complain about how he had ruled them harshly, too, and they rebelled against the rule of his son Rehoboam who stated his intent to rule even more harshly.

The visit of the Queen of Sheba is an interesting tale.  Her name is never given in the few biblical accounts of her visit, but she is apparently also mentioned in the Koran, and it is believed that even if the queen herself is a mythical figure, Sheba may refer to the Sabean kingdom in what is now Yemen (today a very poor country, rather than a rich one).

The royal visit, be it mythical or historical, was for several purposes.  The queen is said to have come to test Solomon’s wisdom, and was impressed by it.  She was also impressed by his wealth; and yet brought large amounts of gold as a gift, that Solomon certainly did not need, and probably far more even than would have been customary for a state visit.  This suggests that she actually feared her country being taken over by the growing kingdom of Israel/Judah, and was actually paying a heavy tribute to avoid this – protection money, you might say.

So although Solomon is remembered mainly as a good and wise ruler, it is clear even from accounts that you might expect to be favourable (having found their way into the Jewish and Christian scriptures) his approach to governing was not welcomed by the people of his day, nor would his actions be seen as acceptable by most people today.  His wisdom may have been a gift from God, but he misused it in failing to rule justly.


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 – 18 August

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18 August. Song of Songs chapters 1 to 8 (entire book)


This book, also known as the Song of Solomon, has always intrigued readers of the Bible.  Is it merely erotic poetry? Or is it intended as an allegory of something else? One interpretation is that the male lover and his female beloved represent respectively the Word of God and the divine Wisdom (or Holy Spirit), in which case this is about the loving nature of God himself as expressed in the relationships within what Christians call the Holy Trinity. Another version of this allegory is that the lover and beloved represent Christ and the Christian Church.  Given that it is not at all certain that Jesus intended to form a new religion, that seems unlikely.  Another view is that that the desire between the lovers represents the passion with which God seeks to bring individuals to himself, and with which the true believer in turn seeks intimacy with God.  That makes more sense to me.


The refrain “do not arouse or awaken love until she so desires” can likewise be taken literally, as an understanding that feminine sexuality is more complex than the masculine equivalent, more in need of being wooed and seduced.  Or, taking the allegorical view, it might mean that each of us has a “right time” in our lives at which we will respond to God’s loving call. To try and force religion on someone who is not ready for the divine love is like trying to seduce a girl who is not yet ready for a relationship with a man.


Whichever way you like to read it, it remains one of the most beautiful of love poems, a reminder that the human body is something to be celebrated and admired, and not to be ashamed of.




The Bible in a Year – 30 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

30 July. Proverbs chapters 13-15

Another three chapters of the short sayings of Solomon.  One of the Bible readings in church this morning (from the Revised Common Lectionary which many churches use) was from 1 Kings chapter 3 (see my notes for 13 April).  In that reading, the Lord appears to Solomon at Gibeon, the principal place of worship in Judah in those days, and offers him anything he wants.  Rather than “absolute political power” or great wealth, or the death of his enemies, Solomon requests “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil”. Although obviously already a respected ruler (he had just married the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh) he was aware that many skills are needed to become a great leader, with discernment of people’s motives among the most important. That is one of the aspects of “emotional intelligence” that I suggested in my introduction to the Proverbs are what this book is really about.  God commends him for this wise choice and adds riches and honour as a bonus.

Again, it is difficult to single out particular verses, but let’s look at those that refer to relationships between parents and children. To our culture in which corporal punishment is frowned on or even illegal, “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them” (13:24) seems shocking, but at the time it would have seemed sensible advice. Even now, the dangers of over-indulging children are evident in rising obesity, children addicted to smartphones and youngsters attacking their teachers. That leaves us with the question of how children should be disciplined if physical chastisement is ruled out.  It only leaves leading by example, which is tough, but ultimately the best way to pass on a pattern of righteous living.

Take another verse: “A fool despises a parent’s instruction, but the one who heeds admonition is prudent” (15:5). No mention there of the rod, but the emphasis here is on the child’s responsibility to accept instruction and correction, rather than on the parent’s responsibility to teach them. It’s not clear in Proverbs what the age of the intended audience is, but there are many references to “young men” so probably teenagers are in mind – in later Judaism, 12 is the age of Bar Mitzvah when a boy becomes an adult and responsible for his own actions under the law of God. I guess these sayings may have been taught in classes for boys approaching or following their initiation as young adults.

Another relevant verse is 15:20, “A wise child makes a glad father, but the foolish despise their mothers”. Why does on half of the saying refer to fathers and the other to mothers, other than to make a literary symmetry?  Maybe the point is that fathers rather than mothers were responsible for discipline, while the mother provided emotional support. Many young men find their relationship with their father difficult in adolescence, but retain an affectionate relationship with their mothers, and who would go so far as to say they despise their mother?


Lessons learnt as adolescents are, of course, still relevant in later life, so whatever age you might be now, these teachings are still worth hearing. A good relationship with your parents is still to be prized, even when they are elderly; and most people as they grow up will sooner or later be parents themselves and will need to put these lessons into practice.

The Bible in a Year – 16 April (Easter Day)

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16 April (Easter Day). 1 Kings chapters 10-11

One of the lessons of history is that no empire lasts for ever. The history of every part of the world records rebellions, revolutions, invasions and any number of other causes of the breaking up of whatever empire, kingdom or federation has been built over previous generations.  Here we see the beginning of the fall of the federation of the tribes of Israel that David had so ably brought together under God’s guidance.


Another well known saying is that “pride comes before a fall”. Like many English sayings it has a Biblical origin, Proverbs 16:18 “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”. But it is universally recognised as true and was probably a saying long before it was collected in the book of Proverbs.


These two lessons, along with God’s repeated warnings in the Bible about the risks of intermarriage, come together in today’s readings.  Solomon becomes exceedingly wealthy as well as very wise. There is nothing wrong in that as such, as clever people do tend to become rich. However it is difficult to become rich without it being at someone else’s expense somewhere in the world, and Jesus and his apostles said a lot about the dangers of wealth as a distraction from serving God faithfully.


While the book of Samuel does not criticise Solomon for his wealth, it does criticise him for another aspect of his reign, which is his many foreign wives.  Polygamy is not the issue, as at this time it was still common for men of power to have a harem.  The problem lies with the fact that they are mostly non-Jews, and gradually lead Solomon astray from worshipping the one true God, into idolatry.  Most religions are critical of intermarriage for this very reason, that it is difficult to love someone and at the same time distance yourself from their belief.   This can work both ways, of course: while St Paul cautions Christians not to marry outside the faith, he also says of those who are converted while married that they should stay together: “Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife” (1 Corinthians 7:16)


In Solomon’s case, though, the consequences are much worse than the break-up of a marriage, or his own falling away from faith in God.  Rather, as the head of the nation of Israel, his own apostasy marks the beginning of the end of the nation. God speaks through a prophet to Jeroboam (not to be confused with Solomon’s son Rehoboam  who would succeed him) that he would become leader of ten of the eleven tribes, with only Judah remaining under the control of David’s dynasty.


Let us pray for our own political and faith leaders, that they may not be led astray either by the temptations of wealth and power, or the influence of their families or anyone else who would lead them astray from wise and just rule.


Happy Easter!

The Bible in a Year – 15 April

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15 April. 1 Kings chapters 8-9

After completing the temple, there was (of course) a great week-long celebration to dedicate it. It’s a natural human instinct to celebrate the successful completion of anything, whether a course of study or the construction of a large building; or indeed a life well lived. The Jews seem to have a particular knack for celebrating well, and their festival of Hanukah in December still recalls the dedication of the temple (the later one, not Solomon’s).


But before the feasting starts (someone had to eat the meat of the 120,000 sheep and 20,000 cattle that were sacrificed!) the high point is Solomon’s dedication sermon recorded here in full. Although we are not told here what he was wearing, a look back at the provisions in the book of Leviticus will tell us about the finery of his robes – and remember he was king as well as high priest, for the people of Israel had demanded that their spiritual leader should also have the title and function of a king.


The speech alternates between addressing God and addressing the gathered people. Solomon kneels before the altar and the ark of the covenant, which symbolise the presence of God, though he acknowledges that God is everywhere, and asks God to bless those who keep his laws, and forgive those who repent when they have sinned. Then he turns to the people, reminds them of the promises that God keeps, and exhorts them to keep the laws.


That is essentially the role of a priest, or any minister of religion – to be an intermediary between God and humanity. From time to time, Christians have argued about what we should call the leaders of our communities and what their function should be – are they ‘priests’ fulfilling a Solomon-like function to which they have a special calling, or in recognition of the risen Christ’s role as a permanent high priest for us in heaven, should we just call them ‘ministers’ or ‘pastors’ and treat them as brothers and sisters on equal terms?


You can still find both attitudes, even within my denomination (Church of England). In one church you may find a ‘priest’ dressed in essentially Roman robes, standing before the altar conducting the ‘mass’ that (apart from translation) has changed little since Roman times and where Solomon might feel at home, in others a ‘pastor’ in contemporary clothes facilitating a joyful gathering in which people of all ages and genders share in the teaching and prayers.  But whatever you call your church leader, and however he (or she) dresses, their role is to assist you in worship and living God’s way, or as Jesus put it, in “loving God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself”.



The Bible in a Year – 14 April (Good Friday)

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14 April. 1 Kings chapters 6-7

In these chapters, Solomon arranges the building of his great Temple, which takes seven years, and his even bigger palace, which takes thirteen.  The furnishings of these, especially the Temple, are described in great detail.


The Temple in its three versions – this first one, the rebuilt one after the Exile, and finally Herod’s Temple that Jesus knew – would be the central focus of religious life in Israel/Judah for the best part of a thousand years.   There is no longer a central Temple for either Jews or Christians. But its symbolism continues in Christianity – for example the plan of many Catholic and Anglican churches with narthex, nave, chancel and altar sanctuary  deliberately echoes the plan of the temple, and some church fonts are made to resemble the “sea” or large basin of water in the nave of the temple.


Today (as I write this) is Good Friday 2017, the most solemn day of the Christian year when Jesus died for our sins.  One of the ‘crimes’ for which he was condemned was the blasphemous claim that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.  What he meant was that in his death, he would instantly put an end to the the purpose of the Temple (indeed its curtain that kept ordinary people away from the holiest part of the shrine was miraculously torn down at the moment of his death), and on the third day when he rose from the dead he himself would become the temple for us.


The Christian understanding is that Jesus replaced the temple, a central place of prayer by priests on behalf of the people, as the way to God, for he was God incarnate, and he “lives for all time to make intercession for us”. He replaced it as the location where God can be encountered, for we can know his presence at any time. He replaced the function of its altars for making sacrifice for sin, for he himself became the ultimate sacrifice.


This week, Jews have celebrated the Passover and Christians prepare to celebrate Easter – these are really two versions of the same story of God’s saving love.  But one led, after over five hundred years, to a man-made temple in which God’s love for Israel could be remembered and kept sacred.  The other instantly opened up God’s love to the whole world for ever.


May you have a blessed day and look forward to the celebration on Sunday.

The Bible in a Year – 13 April

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13 April. 1 Kings chapters 3-5

What do you give the man who has everything?  Here we read of the vision in which God offers Solomon anything he wants.  Instead of anything material, he asks for wisdom to make him a good ruler.  That was to be the foundation for an astonishing kingship.  Almost immediately (if the stories here are in their right order) he gives what is perhaps his most famous judgement, ruling that of two women who argue who is a child’s mother, the one willing to part with him rather than see him come to harm is the right one. Sadly, as we all know from the tragedies of “Bay Peter” and others like him, there are still those parents who are willing to let their children be harmed, or even abuse them themselves.


Solomon’s wisdom, we are told, extends beyond wise law-giving, as he was a great naturalist, philosopher and song writer. Such polymaths (people who excel in many aspects of human knowledge and experience) are rare, but greatly to be valued.


Solomon then begins his life’s great work – the building of a great temple in Jerusalem as a permanent replacement for the tabernacle tent of the Exodus years.  Much of the rest of the book will be taken up with it, just as the great cathedrals of Europe took a lifetime or more to complete. Like them, construction required vast numbers of masons, joiners and other craftsmen.  Interestingly,  although this is to be the great place for worship for the Israelites, Solomon not only accepts but seeks the skills of foreign workers, in this case the Sidonians and Lebanese.  Let those who seek to reduce immigration in our own day take note!