I Kings 4-6, Psalm 99, Acts 14
Overcoming the Blues with Prayers of Praise
I Kings 4-6
If Solomon had lived in the United States, he would have lived in Texas. Everything that he did was big and was bigger than anything you could find elsewhere. His stable was huge and legendary. We read in 1 Kings 4 that it had “forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots and twelve thousand horsemen.” This may have been an exaggeration, but nonetheless it was probably massive in scale.
Legend has it that when the Crusaders reclaimed Jerusalem from Muslims who had lit fires in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and had robbed, raped and killed pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land and destroyed Christian holy sites, they found the pattern of the labyrinth etched in the floor of Solomon’s stables. They took this pattern back to Europe and etched it in the floors of several great cathedrals such as Chartres, located south of Paris. This then became a wonderful spiritual tool for Christians to meditate and pray as they walked the labyrinth.
Chapter four tells us the most important thing that we need to know about King Solomon. “God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt.” (1 Kings 4:29-30) Wisdom is a great gift. It is far too lacking in the world today. We have traded wisdom for massive amounts of information, much of which is scarcely useful. We can hear within minutes about the latest celebrity divorce or new and obscenely expensive contract for a pro athlete. What we lack is the ability to settle differences, act with calm heads and exercise wisdom. Voltaire once famously said, “Common sense is not so common.” Neither is wisdom.
We are told that Solomon’s “fame spread throughout all the surrounding nations. He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles and fish.” (1 Kings 4:33) My late father-in-law was a lawyer by profession, but a naturalist by avocation. Both his youngest son and he were Eagle Scouts. I was amazed to learn that they once walked through an Alabama forest in the winter and tried to identify 100 trees merely by their bark. Nature has supreme lessons to teach us. God’s fingerprints are all over creation. Solomon was wise to learn lessons from nature and pass them along to others.
In chapter five we learn that Solomon intended to build a house for the name of the Lord. David’s son would be remembered chiefly for two things – he was a leader of renowned wisdom and he built the Temple in Jerusalem. The latter opportunity had been denied to his father, David. We each have our role to play in life. We may dream of fulfilling one goal, but this goal may have to wait for someone else to fulfill long after we have retired or died. David’s role was to establish Israel’s security and supremacy. He was a fierce warrior. Solomon ruled in a much different time. He was fortunate to build upon the foundation of peace and security that his father had established. We read,
You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet. But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary nor misfortune. So I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to my father David, ‘Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name. (1 Kings 45:3-5)
I serve a church that was established in 1698 on a one acre land of property that was part of a land grant from William Penn. We now operate nine separate buildings, which on average are 150 years old, on a 43 acre tract of land, including a 15 acre churchyard or cemetery. Our congregation has grown to 1,400 members and has withstood the changes of more than three centuries and several wars. The British occupied our church during the Revolutionary War, using it as a stable, the tower as an observation post and the gravestones for target practice. It was in such disrepair after the war that a new church had to be constructed. All that the leaders of our church and I do is to build upon the foundation for ministry that many others have laid before us. They, like David, have paved the way for us.
Philadelphia has some fine Episcopal churches, including St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a renowned Anglo-Catholic parish built in the Gothic Revival style between 1847 and 1849. The church’s design and liturgy were influenced by the Oxford Movement. Rodman Wanamaker, a prominent Philadelphian whose family ran the most important shopping store in the city, donated the funds to construct and furnish the Lady Chapel. This chapel has a stunning silver altar with nearly 150 individually sculpted saints and scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. It is humorously said that this altar is “the only place where one can worship God and Mammon at the same time.”
Much the same can be said for Solomon’s Temple. It took seven years to construct. “The interior of the inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high; [Solomon] overlaid it with pure gold. He also overlaid the altar with cedar. Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, then he drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold. Next he overlaid the whole house with gold, in order that the whole house might be perfect; even the whole altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary he overlaid with gold.” (1 Kings 6:20-22) Our great houses of worship deserve our best and to be built to last for the ages, but our finest giving must be made to bless the lives of the poor and care for those in need. A church is not a church unless it focuses on reaching out to the poor and helping those who need the hand of compassion extended to them.
All of us suffer the same fate in this life. We all die. No one escape this destiny. Our opportunity for eternity comes in the life beyond this life, after we have passed through the judgment of God and our lives have been weighed in the balance by God. While we all know this at one level, experiencing the loss of someone of something that we have cherished is the number one reason why people leave church. We know that people die every day from diseases, accidents or tragedy. But when it happens to someone we cherish who has led a wonderful life or to an infant who has hardly had a chance to embrace the gift of life or when it happens to us, it can shake our faith to the core. What kind of God would allow this to occur? Our concept of a loving, graceful God may be severely tested.
Psalm 99 is a wonderful antidote to a saddened soul scarred by a tarnished image of God. It is a wonderful psalm to pray regularly. The Psalmist tells us,
The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The Lord is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples…
Mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.
Extol the Lord our God;
Worship at his footstool.
Holy is he!
O Lord our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them,
but an avenger of their wrongdoings. (Psalm 99:1-2, 4-5, 8)
Psalm 99 sets the record straight. God can be counted upon. God is a god of justice and righteousness. We need not cast off God in our sorrow and grief and make ourselves even more miserable. God is our lifeline to eternity. God is our strength and comfort. It is He who provides the peace and harmony that we need to live with hope and address the today’s challenges and discover the abundant life that Jesus promises us. If you are struggling on your life’s journey, commit Psalm 99 to memory and to repeat each day along with psalms 95 and 100.
Miguel de Unamuno was a novelist, poet, playwright, philosopher and rector of the University of Salamanca. He was somewhat of an existentialist, who belonged to the Generation of 1898 – a group of famous Spanish writers which included Pío Baroja, Ramón del Valle-Inclán and Antonio Machado. In his novella San Manuel Bueno, mártir he tells the story of Don Manuel, the priest of the small town of Valverde de Lucerna, who is deemed to be a living saint by the people whom he serves.
Many men in small towns despised the local priest, because he was the most powerful person in the community. More than the mayor or any elected official, he had ultimate say over the community. He was the person that everyone with a problem consulted for advice and wisdom. At times, he was held in contempt for his power. At other times, he was worshipped like a living god among the people.
There is still a possibility for parish priests to be put on a pedestal by their parishioners and the members of their community. The same can happen as well with lawyers, physicians, coaches, teachers, elected officials and military leaders. It is dangerous to allow ourselves to become the center of every conversation and to have the ultimate say, to be treated as a god in our church, firm or town.
In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas visit Lystra, where they encounter a man who has been crippled from birth. Growing up in such an environment we come to take what we see for granted. Paul and Barnabas, however, were new to this community and had nothing to lose. They saw things as temporary, which others had come to see as permanent. Looking intently at a crippled man and seeing that he had the faith to be healed, Paul called out, “Stand upright on your feet.” There must have been something commanding about Paul’s voice and demeanor. They man did not stand up, but sprang up and began to walk. The crowd must have been speechless, but soon they were shouting, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (Acts 14:11)
There is part of all of us that longs to be treated like a celebrity or a god, to bask in the limelight, be the focus of attention and receive accolades. It is good to serve in a position where we can exercise our gifts and receive some praise for what we contribute. This is healthy and normal. It builds self-esteem and energizes us to work harder and contribute more.
Basking too much in glory, however, is to misplace attention from God to ourselves and is a disservice to God, to others and ultimately to ourselves. Paul and Barnabas are quick to recognize this. They called out, “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” (Acts 14:15)
But the Jews from Antioch and Iconium were threatened by Paul and Barnabas preaching. They won over the crowds, stoned Paul and dragged him from the city. Paul had more fortitude than most Christians in history. The punishments that he endured while spreading the Gospel are awe-inspiring. They told others, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)
When Paul and Barnabas finally returned to Antioch they related all that God had done with them. Why do we Christians not do the same today and relate the powerful things that God is doing through us and around us to inspire others in the journey with Christ?
Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he! (Psalm 99:5)
It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22)
What do you do each day to grow in wisdom? What will be your life’s greatest work? What do you long to be remembered for doing? How do you and how does your church care for the poor and needy? What do you do to extend the hand of compassion? Are words of praise and thanksgiving on your tongue first thing each day? Do you have a practice of reading a psalm of praise each morning? In what ways must you struggle from allowing others to place you on a pedestal or treat you like a god? How far are you willing to go to serve the Gospel?
Holy and Gracious God, may a word of praise and thanksgiving ever be upon our lips and radiating from our lives. You have created us to experience abundant life. Whenever we are not experiencing this, may you guide us to quiet reflection and show us ways in which we can make corrections in order to discover the joy that you long for us to experience. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania