11/01/2007

Solomozymandias

During the inauguration of the First Temple, its builder, King Solomon, offered a very long prayer, recorded in I Kings Chapter 8 vv. 22-53. He lists many functins that the new temple would serve. Among them, he says:

46 If they sin against Thee--for there is no man that sinneth not--and Thou be angry with them, and deliver them to the enemy, so that they carry them away captive unto the land of the enemy, far off or near; 47 yet if they shall bethink themselves in the land whither they are carried captive, and turn back, and make supplication unto Thee in the land of them that carried them captive, saying: We have sinned, and have done iniquitously, we have dealt wickedly; 48 if they return unto Thee with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray unto Thee toward their land, which Thou gavest unto their fathers, the city which Thou hast chosen, and the house which I have built for Thy name;

This is an amazing thing. Solomon could conceive of a situation in which the people would sin and be exiled, but his temple would remain standing, and the exiles would continue to pray toward it. This possibility, that the building remains significant even in the absence of the people, is negated by God's response to Solomon at the beginning of Chapter 9:

3 And the LORD said unto him: 'I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication, that thou hast made before Me: I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put My name there for ever; and Mine eyes and My heart shall be there perpetually. 4 And as for thee, if thou wilt walk before Me, as David thy father walked, in integrity of heart, and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded thee, and wilt keep My statutes and Mine ordinances; 5 then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom over Israel for ever; according as I promised to David thy father, saying: There shall not fail thee a man upon the throne of Israel. 6 But if ye shall turn away from following Me, ye or your children, and not keep My commandments and My statutes which I have set before you, but shall go and serve other gods, and worship them; 7 then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for My name, will I cast out of My sight; and Israel shall be a proverb and a by word among all peoples; 8 and this house which is so high [shall become desolate], and every one that passeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss; and when they shall say: Why hath the LORD done thus unto this land, and to this house? 9 they shall be answered: Because they forsook the LORD their God, who brought forth their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods, and worshipped them, and served them; therefore hath the LORD brought all this evil upon them.'

Here, God changes the focus of the temple: it can only stand while Israel does His will in the land. The building has no objective merit. It is the centerpiece of the Israelite civilization. Absent that civilization, its ruins will become a byword for what was, and what happened when a once proud nation forsook its God. In this sense, God is protecting Solomon from the hubris of great builders for the sake of great buildings, from emphasizing edifice over edification, in short, from becoming like the king in Shelley's poem below:

OZYMANDIAS

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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