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PRAYER – the drama of a quiet time with God

Key verse: 2 Chronicles 7 verse 14

Salutation

Thank you, Pastor Jan, for your kind and gracious welcome. Allow me to greet the online congregation and other viewers. Thank you for your time and interest.

My sermon tonight will be more of a reflective meditation than a traditional sermon. I want to invite you to journey with me through the book of Chronicles (particularly 2nd Chronicles) in the Old Testament. I have chosen as a key verse 2 Chron chapter 7 verse 14 – a well-known verse:

“If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and will heal their land.” 

The focus of my reflection is embedded in its title: PRAYER – the drama of a quiet time with God.

Framework for sermon

Allow me to frame my reflections by asking a direct and somewhat personal question: When do we pray? I’m not asking what time of the day. I am asking, what triggers you or what causes or what circumstances have and are forcing you to pray? Are these circumstances celebratory and full of praise or are they embedded in tragedy and a sense of defeat and helplessness forcing you to call on the name of God? 

Unfortunately, we often only pray when there is a crisis – a context of personal or national drama or tragedy. We often only engage with God when we have run out of options – when we are feeling a sense of helplessness – Oh God help me. We are like a patient in the trauma unit/casualty ward of the hospital after being involved in a terrible accident and in need of emergency care and treatment which we ourselves cannot do or administer. 

Ideally, our prayer life should be an ongoing communication / communing with God – including elements of praise and adoration of God … the creator of the universe – the great divine – that which the prophets of old sometimes described as “the ancient of days” – that which is beyond us – that which is both mysterious and yet understandable[1] at the same time – that which is out in the universe and at the same time close to us and in us. As the Apostle Paul teaches in the New Testament, our bodies are the temple of God – a place that houses God – and yet we know that we cannot put God in a box or confine God to a physical place. Christian believers will echo that God dwells in us and among us – an incarnation of the divine.

Application of prayer and transition to the text

So my question remains: When do you pray? Another way of reframing it is to ask: When do we commune with God – or When are we available for God to communicate with us? Are we so busy that there is no headspace and no heart space for God to communicate with us?

In the text which we are considering and reflecting on tonight, this becomes a poignant issue.

We learn from 2 Chron 7 verses 11-13 that God appeared to Solomon at night, first of all, and secondly, God appeared when Solomon was finished with the building and dedication of the temple and the royal palace/residence. 

In other words, Solomon had a headspace to hear God. Sometimes we are so busy that the noise of our busyness drowns out the voice of God. 

So, the writer of the book of Chronicles carefully creates the atmosphere and we need to pay close attention as we, the outsiders and modern-day readers of the story, anticipate the dynamics of the interaction between God and Solomon.

You see Chapter 7 of 2nd Chronicles – which is our narrow focus this evening and from which our key verse comes … this chapter 7 is a description of what happened immediately after the building and the dedication of the first-ever temple and royal residence/palace that was built for the King of the Hebrew people – in this instance King Solomon, son of King David.

We are told in Chapter 8 verse 1 that this temple and palace building project took 20 years:

  • Chp 8 Verse 1 – At the end of twenty years, during which Solomon built the temple of the Lord and his own palace, (2) Solomon rebuilt the villages that Hiram (King of Tyre – see ch 2 verse 3).

So twenty years was the duration and length of this building project. It was by far the most ambitious building project ever to be undertaken by the Hebrew people of God. The writer of Chronicles tells us in copious and fine detail how the building project was organised and financed. It makes for fascinating reading. For example, the project created 153 600 jobs – of which 70 000 were carriers, 80 000 were stone cutters and 3,600 were foremen/building supervisors (chapter 2 verse 17-18). And that was just the labour component. 

The procurement of materials was equally fascinating and included the best timber from Lebanon and huge quantities of precious metals including gold, silver, bronze and iron. We find these details in 2 Chron chapter 2 (esp. verses 7-8).

Interestingly, Solomon wrote a letter or request – a kind of procurement order – to the King of Tyre (Hiram) requesting his assistance. Solomon had made a special request that the King of Tyre sends his most skilled artisan –  in fact, a metallurgist – skilled in working with precious metals. This person had a name – Huram-Abi (chp 2 verse 13).

The motivation for the building f the temple is explained by Solomon in his letter to the King of Tyre as follows:

(Chapter 2 Verse 5) – The temple I am going to build will be great, because our God is greater than all other Gods.

Later in the same chapter, Solomon says: (verse 9b)

  • “the temple I build must be large and magnificent”. 

Theological doubt or affirmation

So Solomon’s strategic plan was to build a magnificent temple. And in the midst of communicating his strategic plan to a neighbouring King of Tyre, Solomon exposes a theological strand of doubt or was it an affirmation. It is at this moment in the narrative that one sees and senses that in the midst of the energy to build the temple, there is that niggly thought as expressed by Solomon in his letter to this foreign King of Tyre.

Solomon says to this King: “I am going to build a magnificent temple to my God. But ….  And this is a BIG but …( Chp 2 verse 6 – Solomon says): 

But who is able to build a temple for him (God), since the heavens cannot contain him? Who then, am I to build a temple for him, except as a place to burn sacrifices before him”. 

Wow! Do you sense some tension within the soul of Solomon? Or is it just me. Here we have Solomon – who by the way – is writing to a foreign King – and is sharing with this foreign King a strand of theological doubt or was it an affirmation?

Solomon is driven by some very clear goals and objectives – namely to build a magnificent temple for God. And in the same breath he affirms (to a foreigner – and not to his own religious leaders – or priests) that God cannot be put in a building – in a box – because not even the heavens can contain him (chp 2 verse 6). 

Sometimes, it is easier and safer to express your spiritual doubts to a stranger than to an insider – because a stranger will be less judgmental of you. Imagine Solomon called the priests together and said:

I’m building the magnificent temple .. but actually … it might be a bit futile because not even this temple will be able to contain God – no matter how magnificent it is going to be.  

The same theological affirmation (and sentiment) is later expressed in Solomons public prayer of dedication – that first prayer uttered during the inaugural ceremony and the official opening of the newly built temple. 

Imagine the scene: the temple is completed; the inaugural ceremony begins – (chapter 6 verse 12). I quote:

Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly of Israel and spread his hands … he stood on the platform and then knelt down before the assemble of Israel and spread out his hands towards heaven. (14) He said (prayed):  Oh Lord God of Israel there is none like you … . 

And Solomon proceeds to offer the first-ever prayer of dedication in the newly built temple. And as if, he was haunted by his private theological doubt which he expressed to the King of Tyre in chapter 2 verse 6, he repeats that same doubt – or affirmation (depending on your perspective) and says in chapter 6 verse 18: 

Verse 18 – But will God really dwell on earth with men? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple that I have built. Yet, give attention to your servant’s prayer and his pleas for mercy, Oh Lord my God, Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence (chapter 6 verse 19).

Jump to our key verse

It is that cry and prayer made by God’s servant, King Solomon, which God now responds to in the next Chapter – chapter 7 verse 12:

The Lord appeared to Solomon at night and said: “I have heard your prayer (referring to the prayer uttered in Chapter 6). 

So as astute biblical students we should take a careful look at this prayer that God has heard and to which God is now providing an answer/response. What exactly did Solomon pray? Let me summarise the prayer which had at least seven aspects; You can read it for yourself in 2 Chron 6 verses 14 to 42. It is a long prayer and covers a wide range of topics such as:

(v.22) Wrongdoing against one’s neighbour.

(v.24) What happens when you are defeated in war/battle.

(v.26) How does one interpret environmental disasters such as drought, 

(v.28) How does one interpret and deal with famine, poverty, disease, the onslaught by foreign enemies

(v.32) how to deal with foreigners

(v.34) how to deal with warfare

(v.36) how to deal with sin – noting that no one is without sin; But more poignantly, how to deal with sin when you are in captivity in a land far away from your homeland – far away from the temple where you would normally offer your prayers and sacrifices.

These are the topics covered in Solomons prayer of dedication as recorded in 2 Chron chapter 6 and chapter 7 is God’s response.

In my view, chapter 6 is a rather strange mix of topics for a celebratory service. After all, it’s time for celebration and not for mourning or national depression. Did the book of Ecclesiastes not say that there is a time and place for everything? And therefore, was the dedication of the temple and the first prayer uttered by Solomon not a time for celebration? Where and how do the topics of captivity and exile and warfare and famine and natural disasters – where and how do these fit into the picture of celebration and the opening of the magnificent temple? 

500 years later

A clue is to ask the question: So who is writing up this story of the dedication of the temple? And where is this writer located? Biblical scholars tell us that the book of Chronicles was written 500 years after Solomon built the temple. They also tell us that the writer of Chronicles was probably Ezra – the Hebrew sent back to his homeland by King Cyrus of Persia.

Ezra (and later Nehemiah) was sponsored by the Persian Colonial government to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the temple which had been destroyed through successive colonial regimes. It was the Babylonians under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar who destroyed the temple, which you will recall from your knowledge of biblical history. The babylonian colonial policy was to exile the skilled classes so that they could build up the infrastructure of Babylon. You will recall some of the laments of the Hebrew people of God in Exile – How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.

The Persian colonial / foreign policy was different to the Babylonians and it was more lenient. The Persians sponsored a repatriation program and a rebuilding of the city and temple in exchange, I suspect, for political loyalty. Let’s be realistic about these things. Nothing for nothing especially when dealing with political forces such as imperialistic and colonial minded rulers.

Given this background, allow me some interpreter’s licence. I want you to imagine that you and I are Ezra or Nehemiah. We return to the land of our foremothers and forefathers – our cultural ancestors – we return to the holy city of Jerusalem. And what is the sight that greets us? A pile of stones – rubble and dirt – where once upon a time in the past, 500 years ago, here stood the temple built by King Solomon – a magnificent temple. But now, it lay in ruins – the Hebrew people scattered as a result of colonial conquest – a people who have lost their land, their culture, their language, their way and place of worship – a devastated people.

And so, Ezra (or whoever the writer was of Chronicles) re-writes the history of the country – and that is what the book of Chronicles is – it is a retelling of the history but from the vantage point of 500 years of devastation, sin, wrongdoing against a neighbour, warfare, drought, famine, captivity. Its sounds almost like the themes in Solomon’s prayer recorded in Chapter 6.

God’s answer to the prayer

God’s answer to Solomons prayer – his long prayer – is summarised by God in one verse. God is saying and responding to a long catalogue of laments with one summary statement:

  • If my people ….. who are called by my name …..

There are at least four things that are required if forgiveness and healing is to take place according to this verse:

(  1) If my people humble themselves – so humility is needed and not arrogance.

( 2) If my people humble themselves and pray …. So prayer is needed. We need to communicate with God.

( 3 ) If my people … thirdly … turn from their wicked way …. – so a decision needs to be made to live a God-fearing life – a decision is needed – to actively turn away from evil.

( 4) Fourthly, If my people seek my face – in other words, seek God’s wisdom and counsel and do not lean on your own understanding, says the Proverbs.

If you do these things, says God, “I will hear from heaven (not from the temple – not from the holy of holies) – but from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land”. (2 Chron 7: 14).

Wow! This is how the Chronicler records the exchange between God and Solomon that night during Solomon’s quiet time with God.

The drama – the trauma

Now I do not know who is more traumatised – Solomon when he built and dedicated the temple or the writer of Chronicles who is standing among the ruins of the once magnificent temple – and recalling the glory days of when the temple was built – but now all that remains is dust and ruins.

Conclusion                        

Where to find God

Solomon built a magnificent temple, no doubt. And in fairness to Solomon, the text describes him as wrestling with the omnipresence of God. You will recall Solomon saying: I’m building a temple for God but the temple cannot confine God to a physical place. Solomon wrestles (or is it the Chronicler who wrestles) with the profound question captured in : (chp 6 verse 18) – 

But will God really dwell on the earth? The heavens, even the highest heavens cannot contain God” says Solomon in his prayer of dedication (2 Chron 6: 18).

So if your theology was temple bound – and you understood God to be confined to your expression of where to find God – then it must have been traumatic to look over the rubble, the ruins, the dust, the stones of where the temple once stood and you must have been confronted with the question; If the temple was destroyed, was God also destroyed?

I want to believe that a similar sense of despair is felt when reflecting on the holocaust and other episodes of genocide in human history: Did God die in the gas chambers? Did God die on the rocks on which the heads of our indigenous people were smashed in the 1700s in our history?

Where is God to be found if the temple no longer stands? 

An uncharacteristic prayer

Solomon’s inaugural public prayer at the opening and dedication of the temple, in my view, was uncharacteristic – somewhat out of character, until I accept that this is a recollection of an event retold 500 years after the event and retold by a leader/historian who is starring at the ruins of what was once a magnificent temple.

The writer of Chronicles focuses our attention on the summary statement which God made to Solomon and which applied to his day: A response to the prayer of Solomon.

  • “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and will heal their land.”

Application

So what does all this mean for us today? There are so many lessons one can extract from this short reflective meditation. 

But perhaps one application for today could be that when we pray when we have our quiet time with God – when we have shut out the noises that distract us – when our hearts and minds are ready to hear what God has to say – perhaps then we should follow the model provided by Jesus who said (Matthew 6 verses 5ff):

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray to stand in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men/people .. (6) But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, don’t keep on babbling like the pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  (v9) This then is how you should pray: 

Our father in heaven 

Hallowed be your name

Your kingdom come

Your will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our debts/sins,

As we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from the evil one.

AMEN


[1] fathomable, intelligible, understandable. apparent, clear, evident, manifest, obvious, open-and-shut, palpable, patent, perspicuous, plain, straightforward, transparent, unambiguous, unequivocal, unmistakable.