The house that I am to build will be great, for our God is greater than all gods. But who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him? 2 Chronicles 2.5-6.
King Solomon is about to build a temple for Yahweh. It will have to be a “great” temple because God is great; greater than all the pagan deities which are nothing but powerless figments of their worshippers’ imaginations. By contrast, the God of Israel is a powerful, purposeful God who has been mightily active in history on Israel’s behalf and has made her a nation and given her the land over which Solomon now rules from the throne of his father David. And as Solomon muses on the greatness of God he is struck by the absurdity of what he is about to do. Logically, even heaven cannot contain God for if it could then God would be smaller than heaven and would cease to be God at all! So if God is too big even for heaven, how could a temple — however grand, however spacious, however splendid — contain him?
Ever since the glory of God had filled the tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 40.34-35), all Israel had understood that somehow, in that Holy Place at the back of the Tent of Meeting — the place where the ark of the covenant was kept and where no-one (save the High Priest once a year) might go — God dwelt and was present to them. And Solomon was about to build a temple to replace that tabernacle — a temple that, like the tabernacle, would be filled with God’s glory … as indeed it was. “The house of the LORD, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of God” (2 Chronicles 5.13-14). But even before that happens, even before the foundations are laid, Solomon acknowledges that, in whatever way God will be present in the temple, it will not be a total presence because nothing can possibly encompass the infinitude of God. He is bigger than the entire universe. As Solomon says in his prayer of dedication over the completed temple: “But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” (2 Chronicles 6.18).
The wonder, of course, is that one day — nearly a thousand years in Solomon’s future — God did indeed “dwell with man on the earth”. There came a day (which we shall be celebrating in only eight days time) when the infinitely big God made himself the finitely tiny baby that Mary cradled to her breast — “the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ”. It beggars believe and defies explanation but it is true. The immortal becomes mortal. God becomes a creature in his own creation. The Word which brought the universe into being becomes flesh and dwells among us. I love the way Charles Wesley puts it in his Hymn for the Nativity of Our Lord:
Let earth and Heav’n combine, Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine, Th’ incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span*,
Incomprehensibly made Man.
He laid His glory by, He wrapped Him in our clay;
Unmarked by human eye, The latent Godhead lay;
Infant of days He here became,
And bore the mild Immanuel’s Name.
See in that Infant’s face, The depths of deity,
And labour while ye gaze, To sound the mystery
In vain; ye angels gaze no more,
But fall, and silently adore.
Unsearchable the love, That hath the Saviour brought;
The grace is far above, Of men or angels’ thought:
Suffice for us that God, we know,
Our God, is manifest below.
He deigns in flesh t’appear, Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near, And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.
Made perfect first in love, And sanctified by grace,
We shall from earth remove, And see His glorious face:
His love shall then be fully showed,
And man shall all be lost in God.
(*A span is a hand’s breadth.)
“Who is able to build God a house?” asked Solomon. And the answer is: only God himself. He once built himself a temple of flesh and blood and bone and sinew and dwelt within it. God became man and the name of the man was Jesus. He, Jesus, once said: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2.19) and the one who recorded that saying added: “He was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2.21). Jesus was the house of God — the place where God dwelt with man on earth. That is what we celebrate in awe and wonder this Christmas.