Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

“I am living in a house of cedar, but the Lord lives in a tent.”

July 22, 2012

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:1-14a

“I am living in a house of cedar, but the Lord lives in a tent.”

David’s determination to build God a suitable house is, according to Walter Brueggemann, part royal-aggrandizement and part genuine piety.1

Self-aggrandizement is an understandable if not laudable reason for wanting to improve the Lord’s living quarters. Understandable because David has come a long way since his days as a shepherd in the field: he was finally “settled in his house” for “the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him” (7:1). 

Perhaps he was in a reflective mood. Before reflection for David was a luxury, but now, “settled in his house,” inhaling the sweet, clear pungency of cedar, he felt he was seeing things in a new light, or at least in a different light. A different light from that light which seems always clouded with the urgency of conflict and political intrigue. He lived in a cedar house. David had arrived; he had settled or, more to the point, David had succeeded in climbing the royal ladder.

And so we might appreciate the incongruity that confronts him: why should the presence of the Lord be huddled in a tent while David, a mere mortal, luxuriates in the aromatic house of kings? If David had proven his mettle as a warrior, the Lord had proven Godself as a God of power, a God capable of delivering David out of every adversity. It was time that God joined David in a more upscale way of life, a more dignified house where the Lord’s “arrival” on the world scene would be evident to all.

Maybe we have an easier time with David’s piety: he’s grateful to the Lord for all that the Lord has done, and this is especially so of his finally having found a place to call home, a place to put down roots.

David’s larger story reflects this sense of unrest, of unease, an inability to put down roots: “If you do not save your life tonight,” Michal warned, “tomorrow you will be killed” (1 Samuel 19:11b). David’s story quickly becomes one of fugitive hopes rather than realized dreams, a story of escape rather than arrival, as he runs, hides, and flees from the rages of Saul (18:12; 20:1, 5; 21:10). David even feigns mental illness in the city of Gath, “[leaving] scratch marks on the doors of the gate, and [letting] spittle run down his beard” (21:13b) — in essence, “losing his mind” in order save his skin.

Jonathan captures the deep loss that marks David’s story when he mourns his imminent and deeply felt absence: “You will be missed, because your place will be empty” (20:18b).

Maybe this combination of ache and royal ambition figure into David’s determination to build God a house.

Sojourners ache for something tangible to secure their present life, to ground themselves in something that proves they lived, they mattered: Cedar houses, endowments, tall steeples, children attending prestigious universities — things we imagine “settle” us in the land of the living.

Likewise, the “house of God” — our churches — sometimes fit a little too easily into the world we imagine: conveniently located, user friendly, lab tested and rat approved. Like David, the house of God is always vulnerable to colonization by creaturely appetites rather than theological vision.

Maybe it was this inner wisdom that stirred Nathan, the prophet, from his sleep that night, awakening him from his initial blessing of David’s vision. 

The word of the Lord that came to Nathan looks like a brisk form of theological reality testing:

  • “Are you the one to build me a house to live in?” (2 Samuel 7:5);
  • “. . . Did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel . .  . saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?'” (7).

Nathan tests David’s perception of God against the historical memory of God’s covenant and election of Israel:

  • “I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt” (6);
  • “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep” (8b);
  • “I have been with you wherever you went” (9);
  • “I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them” (10a);

And then the coup d’état, the Lord, not David, will be the builder and David the recipient:

  • ” . . . The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house” (11b).

Now, in place of David’s mixed motives comes a divine promise: the Lord will build a house for David, a house assured by the Lord’s “steadfast love” and “established forever” (15-6).

In the last chapter of his book, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human life, scientist and professor Robert Trivers relates a conversation he had about prayer with a “lone soul,” a person who, he says, “had given himself over to the understanding and love of God.”

Did I pray? he asked. Yes, I prayed. How did I pray? I mostly said the Lord’s Prayer. And how did I say it? And here I burst forth with the old Presbyterian marching band version on which I had been raised. Out rolled the prayer as so much martial music and self-assertion:

Our father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

It rolls right along as if you are telling God where and what she is. It even ends with an assertion that . . . inverts meaning: the way we act on earth . . . is the way you would have us act (as in heaven). No, no, no, said my new friend. Here is how you pray: the emphasis is on your own humility, on submitting to God’s will — “Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come” with “thy” said very softly, and so on. I never prayed the old way again.2

The church may always be caught in the tension of genuine faith and more self-absorbed agendas, but perhaps this text is a Nathan for the church today, reminding it to frame the vision of its life with the vision of “thy will,” opening our hearts, minds, and walls to the vision and breadth of God’s love.

1Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 256-7.
2Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 331-2.