< December 18, 2011 >

Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

 

Royal hope and an undisturbed place

The opening chapters of 2 Samuel describe protracted and bloody conflict over kingship between David and Saul's son Ishbaal, assisted by their respective armies.

Eventually Ishbaal is assassinated and David becomes king over the territories of both Judah and Israel. 

Over the past year around the world a large number of political leaders of a variety of stripes -- dynastic, democratic, dictatorial, military, demagogues and demigods -- have been challenged by their citizenry and in some cases removed from power. All defended the legitimacy of their reign and the benefits of their rule -- some by imprisoning their opponents and shooting their detractors. 

Leadership change generates initial relief for those welcoming it, but there is also a measure of uncertainty for everyone. Regardless of the form of government, it remains to be seen whose voices will be heard in the new regime, what its goals will be and how it will maintain its position in power. 

2 Samuel 7 is closely connected to the story of David's rise to kingship in Israel -- including his complex relationships with King Saul, Saul's son Jonathan and Saul's daughter Michal, his time as a paid fighter for the Philistines, his military successes, his divine anointing to kingship by the prophet Samuel, the friends who would kill to put him in power, his attentiveness to the surviving male heir of Saul's household, his conquest of the Jebusite city of Jerusalem and its designation as the new capital of the nation. Samuel and later Abigail both affirm that David is divinely designated as Israel's king. But divine designation, as David assumes political control, does not eliminate uncertainty over whose voices will be heard, what goals will be pursued and how power will be maintained.

2 Samuel 7 is commonly regarded as the legitimization of David's royal rule: God has determined David to be "prince over my people Israel" and "cut off all your enemies from before you." Moreover, God has determined that David's "throne shall be established forever." There is no weighing of the past and no warnings about the future. The legitimacy of David's reign is beyond question.

2 Samuel 7 does not question David's legitimacy, but it does rebuff his royal intention, recall all his accomplishments as acts of divine beneficence, and recite God's deeds and desires for Israel. The chief subject of 2 Samuel 7 is the LORD (David is the subject of only 3 verbs) and God's actions are directed both toward David and toward Israel. The legitimacy that David draws from this passage is tied to a peaceful place for the people of Israel.

The passage begins with David's observation that his royal residence ("a house of cedar") is more elegant than the tent where the "ark of God" -- the manifestation of God's presence in the community -- is located, and David's intention (as stated by the LORD in verse 5) to build a "house" (i.e., a temple) for the LORD. Temple construction and remodeling are pious and appropriate royal undertakings. It is a logical project for a newly minted king in a newly established capital. Moreover, as Nathan observes, David has divine support: "for the LORD is with you" (verse 3; cf. 2 Samuel 5:10). The project, however, does not receive divine approval; in an oracle to Nathan the LORD questions David's plan. 

Much of the scholarly discussion of God's demurral focuses on why Solomon -- not David -- eventually builds the temple (see 1 Kings 5:2-5; 8:17-19).  In 2 Samuel 7 God's objection focuses not on David but on a pattern of divine mobility. God has been "moving about" (lit. "walking back and forth"; verses 6, 7), accompanying Israel from the day God delivered them from Pharaoh's regime. In tent and tabernacle God has moved with them, providing leaders to shepherd them. David has settled into his royal domain (verse 1) but God refuses a similar settlement (verse 7).  In rebuffing David's proposal, it becomes clear that the future of David's kingship is to be shaped by divine intentions, not Davidic. 

In the next section of the oracle to Nathan the mighty "LORD of hosts" recounts deeds of divine fidelity and care on behalf of "my servant David" (verses 8-9) and "my people Israel" (verses 10-11a). The defeat of David's enemies and David's rise from shepherd to "prince over my people Israel" are the LORD's accomplishments, not David's.

Moreover, David's ascension to kingship is not an end; God will continue to prosper David ("I will make for you a great name."). In the oracle, God's fidelity and care for David flow into a description of what God will do "so that [God's people] may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more." God's investment in David's kingship is tied to God's intentions for all Israel.  

The final section in the oracle returns to the language of "house" that opened the passage, but not the palace that David settled in and not the temple that David had intended to build. God promises to turn David's kingship into a dynasty, an act of divine constancy in dealing with human complexity. God had warned the Israelites about human kingship (1 Samuel 8) and determined that Israel's kings should be held to a different agenda. 

By establishing a royal dynasty in 2 Samuel 7 God makes a commitment to leadership continuity and accountability: "your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me." In this new covenant God continues to act with fidelity and care for David. As before, it is God's people who should benefit from the dynastic arrangement. 

Israel's hope does not rest in a dynasty but there is hope that from the house of David will come forth trustworthy leadership, attentive to the voices of those in need, and in faithful service to God's goals for Israel and the world.