Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
A new king has a grand idea to build a fancy temple for God. But God has other ideas for David.
An emerging monarchy
First and 2 Samuel speak to Israel’s transition period from “a loose federation of tribes” to “an emerging monarchy.”1 As scholar Bruce C. Birch makes clear in his introduction to these books of the Hebrew Bible, the thesis is that God is “at work in these turbulent times.”2
King David is coming off of a high note in chapter 6: the return of the ark of God to Jerusalem under his leadership. This event marks the beginning of a theologically legitimized Davidic monarchy. Saul’s reign is over. The people have a center of power, both political and theological. God’s presence, symbolized by the ark, returns and remains through this Davidic dynasty.
Then why does God seem to challenge King David about notions of God’s presence in our pericope for today?
David wants to take God’s house to the next level
Our pericope opens with “the king settled in his house” and resting from trials and tribulation. But in his palace, David is unsettled about something.
That something? The house for the ark of God. Is a tent good enough of a home for the Lord who has delivered Israel through turbulent times? This God deserves a temple.
David runs to his seer, the prophet Nathan. Without skipping a beat, Nathan affirms David’s vision for a more permanent home for the ark. “Go, and do all that you have in mind.”
But then God has words with Nathan in the night. Nathan, the go-between of God and David, will be tasked with bringing King David back down to earth.
David, unable to discern the will and way of God because he only sees things from his point of view.
God doesn’t need a fancy house built of stone. God needs a people built by God.
The tension is when we project our needs onto God. God, through Nathan, reminds David of who and how God is—omnipresent, not tied down to one place, not a genie in a bottle, not so high and mighty to refuse presence in a humble tent.
This anamnestic move punctuates the Hebrew Scriptures at transitional moments. It is also the way in which the psalms sing of who and how God is. Before King David rushes to secure a dwelling place in the seat of political power, God reminds David that no such thing is required. Ark, exile, pasture, tent, God has been and will be with David and Israel. This is the covenant God makes in chapter 7.
Verse 7 is a playful image for preachers: God walking in all the places the tribes of Israel walked. God in the shoes of Israel when enslaved by Pharaoh. God in the shoes of Israel as they ran on dry ground through a parted Red Sea…When did I ever demand a temple from you? I go where you go. I am with you. No matter what happenstance or setting.
God takes David’s house to the next level instead
But God also sees that Israel needs a place, a home. Israel needs refuge from enemies, ground to cultivate, roots to grow. This is the plot twist in verse 11: “You will not build me a house,” replied the Lord, “I shall build you a house.”3
And the house that God builds is not a house in the sense of four walls either. In time, another meaning for the Hebrew word for house, bayit, will come to the fore: “dynasty”. Through the Davidic line, God dwells. God’s grace extends beyond what is shown to David and through a family line. And we know who is to come in that line: Jesus. Ultimately it is God who takes this covenant to the next level when God becomes present in human flesh as Jesus Christ. And we are heirs of this promise. Through baptism, God dwells with us and through us as we journey through turbulent times and when we dance in joyful processions.
God doesn’t need us to build a fancy new dwelling. God wants to build us.
Maybe what we need to overhear in this pericope during this pandemic, with pressure to take Advent and Christmas to the next level for God, are these words to David and the reminder that God does not need us to take anything to the next level when we have so little energy, time, or technological know-how to give. Rather, we need to slow down and let God build us—dwell in us—in humble, simple, quotidian ways.
God takes the covenant to the next level (not us). That’s the awe of Christmas. See now God incarnate, covered in the blood and amniotic fluid. See Jesus with the beasts, nursing from the milk of an unwed teen in the cover of night. When did I ever demand a temple from you? I go where you go. I am with you.
- Bruce C. Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” in New Interpreter’s Bible Volume II: Numbers, Deuteronomy, Introduction to Narrative Literature, Joshua, Judges, Ruth,1 & 2 Samuel, vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998).
- Birch, 1998.
- Birch, 1998.