Incomparable God

1st Kings 8:22-32

Rev. Christopher Harbin, First Baptist Church—Huntersville, NC

21 July 2013

“Our God is greater, our God is stronger; God, You are higher than any other.”[1] So go the words to a popular worship song. Ours is the biggest, strongest, most powerful of all gods, and none can stand against this our God. In a sense it is strange that these lyrics would be so popular, yet for their meaning has probably never gotten through. We do not really think of God as one among others. We immediately reinterpret these words from Scripture with a completely different sense, that our God is the only God. Yet this is a far cry from the background to these lyrics. How is it that we can readily sing words that in so many ways counter doctrine that we hold undeniable?

The ancient Hebrews lived in a world full of deities. As was true of the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks with their pantheons of gods, so also the Canaanites, Assyrians, and Babylonians had their own deities to worship and fear. The Hebrews found themselves amid various nations and gods. For Israel, only Yahweh was to be worshipped. Yahweh was the One Moses claimed had heard their cry in Egypt, and who under Joshua had led them to reclaim the land promised to Abraham.

Of course, idolatry and the worship of competing deities had existed among them much prior to Moses. The families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had demonstrated a mix of religious loyalties, not always being true to the God of Abraham. Under Moses and Aaron’s tenure, the people had fashioned a golden calf, likely a version of Ba’al, fertility god and god of the thunderstorm. At the end of Joshua’s lifetime, he had called the people to follow his example of following only Yahweh by setting aside their idols. Apparently, idolatry and religious pluralism was still alive and well in his day. Not much changed during the subsequent period of the Judges.

When we turn to 1st Kings, we do well to remember that even in the days of David and Solomon there were voices struggling with religious devotion to Yahweh alone. They people believed in the existence not only of Yahweh, but of many other deities besides. Yahwism in Israel was going against the flow. There were many voices of competing religious loyalty, pushing for worship of Yahweh alongside the worship of a myriad other deities, as well.

It was in response to this polytheism that Solomon’s words rang out: “Yahweh, none of the other gods measures up to you.” It’s not exactly the message we expect to hear. We read the text in light of other passages that would tell us that Yahweh alone is God and there is no other. We read that the idols of the nations are only wood, stone, or metal with no reality behind them. Our desire to confirm that conclusion is so strong, we often never fully hear Solomon’s words or accept their real message.

Perhaps Solomon indeed placed his life in service to Yahweh alone. That did not mean that he understood there were no other deities competing for his allegiance. In point of fact, he fully understood that allegiance to Yahweh was a choice to be made, even if it were the best choice available. He goes on to extol Yahweh’s virtues, demonstrating Yahweh’s faithfulness to Abraham and his descendants, to David, with a promise of continuing faithfulness. He understood as well, that there was a requirement in the covenant relationship to Yahweh. Yahweh would be faithful, but there were conditions demanded of the people. To take full advantage of the covenant with Yahweh, they needed to live in committed faithfulness, as well.

Perhaps the most interesting note in Solomon’s words, however, is his characterization of this covenant agreement. He describes this is an agreement of love based on grace, not on a sense of obligation, fear, or imposition. This covenant of God’s comes to benefit the nations along the lines of a song by Jason Gray that I learned from my boys: “It’s gotta be more like falling in love than something to believe in, / More like losing my heart than giving my allegiance. / Caught up, called out, come take a look at me now. / It’s like I’m falling, oh, / it’s like I’m falling in love.”[2]

It is this very question of a relationship of love and grace that distinguished Yahweh from the gods of the nations around Israel. Yes, Yahweh called them to faithfulness, but this faithfulness stood in marked contrast to the expectations of how Yahweh’s competition was to be served. Molech required the sacrifice of children. Ba’al seems to have required unending sacrifice to respond to the people in light of their needs. The competing deities were unpredictable and unreliable. They made demands of whim that seemingly followed no rhyme or reason and were in no one’s best interest. Yahweh was altogether different, unique.

While other religious traditions were shrouded in secrecy, Yahweh laid everything openly on the table. The common people had full access to guidelines for sacrifices, regulations on religious purity, and even how the priests were to perform their roles and rites. The commandments and rules of life were accessible to all, serving to structure a society. Yahweh promised security in the following of these guidelines. Confidence in the future was possible. Yahweh took on the role of provider and protector for the nation. Yet Yahweh was still greater than all of that.

Solomon dedicated the Jerusalem Temple he had built to Yahweh. It was to reflect Yahweh’s presence among the people, God’s earthly home as a copy of the heavenly sanctuary of God’s presence. And yet Solomon recognized that this temple he dedicated was and would be inadequate. Yahweh was too great to realistically inhabit the Temple, yet it would point to the true sanctuary. He asked Yahweh to take his efforts and bless them as a symbol of Yahweh’s grace and love toward the nation of Israel.

Rather than being a place of God’s true residence, it would be a symbol of Yahweh’s listening ear, giving constant heed to the goings on in this special place. It would be no substitute for God. It was nothing special in itself, yet Solomon asked Yahweh to treat it in a special manner, granting the nation confidence that their prayers would be heard, that God would indeed attend to their needs and concerns.

While asking God to hear and heed everything going on in the Temple, Solomon asked for forgiveness and grace. He knew Israel would not be able to maintain faithfulness in their part of the covenant with God. It would have to be ratified and accepted continually in grace and mercy. This made the covenant with Yahweh different from all others. It made Yahweh incomparable to all other competing deities and religions.

This difference makes God incomparable to humanity, as well. It posits a very different character of relationship. God comes in grace to meet us at our point of need and dependence. Yahweh recognizes our need for grace, forgiveness, and mercy. God calls us to a life of confidence, rather than one burdened by fear, doubt, and uncertainty. We are called to fall in love with this incomparable God, rather than to live bowed by oppression. Perhaps at the end of the day, our reminder is really that God is so much more than we are. Those other gods look much more like ourselves, after all. Are we ready to give our hearts and lives to the incomparable One who gave his life for us?

—©2013 Chrístopher B. Harbin

This sermon in pdf

More sermons by Pr. Chrístopher Harbin

1 Chris Tomlin, “Our God Is Greater”

2 Jason Gray, “More Like Falling in Love.”

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