“NOT EVEN SOLOMON IN ALL HIS SPLENDOR….
…..was arrayed like one of these [lilies],” Jesus said, considerable though it was for the time. Even awe-inspiring, according to the Chronicler. Solomon’s temple, his palace, his garrisons, stables, standing armies, chariots and his imperial and cultural reach even beyond Israel’s borders, are what Jesus had in mind. Then there was his legendary wisdom. Yet even his wisdom could not prevent his moral and spiritual slide, so aptly diagnosed in the similar decline and fall of his descendant, King Uzziah, who, “after he became powerful, his pride led to his downfall (26:16).” Is it possible to be blessed by God and not to come to love the blessing more than the One who blesses? Or must we always be in distress to know the greater blessing of drawing near to God? The Biblical record gives us few examples otherwise.
The purpose of the Chronicler, for the post-Exilic audience, is to assure them that if they too honor and obey only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they will know the security and blessings of God. True as that is, Israel would never return to the splendor of Solomon, neither before nor after the Exile, and not only because of their faithfulness, or lack thereof. Another “Son of Peace,” (which is what the name Solomon means) who would build God’s true house (of human hearts and relationships), was yet to come. “And we have seen his glory, that of the only-begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn. 1:14).” Most surprisingly, the glory of this latter Son of Peace would be the glory of servanthood and sacrifice, not of gold, ivory-covered thrones, nor of warfare and imperial domination. Yet we, the covenant people of God, had to go through this part of the story, like children under tutelage (see Galatians 4:1-7). And it corresponds to our own earliest childhood spiritual and moral development as toddlers and children, a stage that says: “I will obey and honor my parents because they are bigger and more powerful than me, and so doing I will get rewards. Failure to do so brings punishment. The rewards and punishments are secondary to and separate from the actions that provoke them, and the rewards will look like the kind of power and success I can now recognize as such.”
Which is true, particularly from within that frame of reference. But with the coming of Jesus, and of his grace and truth, we see a splendor that exceeds and supercedes that of Solomon, and which reveals blessings, joys and an inheritance that exceed the worldly rewards and punishments in ways that the Chronicler could never have imagined. It is a glory that is recognizable and desirable to us in that more mature state of adult liberty into which God’s Spirit would bring us.
I believe in heaven and hell. But I also believe that a heart oriented toward God even now, by the workings of God’s Spirit, already knows something of heaven, while a heart that willfully shuts out the passionate courtship of God’s Spirit is already in hell, or is hell itself. Such loves and conditions are already their own rewards or punishments. Nothing from either Solomon and his reign, nor from the brief reforms and renewals in the generations that succeeded him, can match the glory of a heart full of willing, submissive, servanthood love for God and others. And nothing, from among the defeats and humiliations provoked by Judah’s apostate kings, can match the hell that is a willfully obstinate heart, hardened against God and one’s neighbor. Keep that in mind as you read II Chronicles.
The modern reader may recoil from an Imprecatory Psalm, such as Psalm 35, also a kind of Lament. Words such as: “may ruin overtake them by surprise— may the net they hid entangle them, may they fall into the pit, to their ruin. Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD and delight in his salvation (vv. 8-9).” At the very least, such prayers seem to contravene the teaching of Jesus, to “pray for those who persecute you.” “May their path be dark and slippery, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them,” was probably not what he had in mind. Although, speaking personally and pastorally, in similar situations of distress and disappointment, I may have to work through the feelings of anger and the desire for vengeance expressed in Psalm 35 before I can get to the kind of prayer Jesus had in mind. And the fact that such words to God are now God’s Word to us tells me that God is a safe person to take such feelings to, that lightning won’t strike us dead for laying it all out before him.
But is vengeance what the psalmist really wants? More like vindication, not only for the Psalmist but also for God and the ways of God. They will be called into question if the persecutors and accusers get their way with impunity. Vindication along the lines of Psalm 35 is part of what salvation and justification mean in the Bible—that in the end, God and our faith in him are vindicated, or justified, and therefore we who held such faith as well. Consider also that this prayer was prayed, perhaps regularly in the Temple (see the prayer of Solomon in II Chronicles 6-7) by people who claimed to be falsely accused, in order to be despoiled and exploited by wealthy and well-connected enemies, during an age before there were police, detectives, DNA testing, multiple accounting systems online, in short, when the poor and exploited had only God to call upon for protection and vindication. So this psalm may have had a legal, forensic function, standing at the place where Israel’s piety and public order met.
Note too that the psalmist is not praying for permission or exoneration for taking vengeance into his or her own hands. The request is for God to work justice. Among the many biblical names for God are “defender of widows” and “father of orphans,” the very people most likely to have no recourse to any legal help but God.