Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:1-14a
The opening clause of 2 Samuel 7 sets up a tension that is explored throughout the chapter.
The king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies. We often read the second as the cause of the former, but theologically, it can be a slippery slope. What hinders one from employing “the Lord has given” for self-serving ends?
David has been an active agent in being “settled in his house.” Not every narrative of his rise to power can be naively described as the “Lord had given.”
For example, the transfer of the ark (2 Samuel 6) to Jerusalem finalizes the shift from tribal affiliations to centralized governance in the personal city of the king. The episodic governance through divinely selected judges is on its way to the presumed permanence of kingship. The core religious symbol of the old structures has been subsumed under the new monarchical structure. We can ask: Is David providing for God, or is it the other way around? 2 Samuel 7 extends the question and answers it with a twist that precludes a simple answer.
David’s residence, a “house of cedar” obtained with the help of a foreign king, is a far cry from anything that characterized the period of the judges. David’s conscience might be bothering him a bit. He has outfitted himself better than he has “outfitted” God.
On the other hand, a key feature of the ark has been mobility. God moves; the ark moves. Is David afraid of the potential mobility of the ark and God? Building something better than a tent could be appropriate considering all that the Lord has given him. Besides, any king in the ancient world that has a “house of cedar” would surely also have a shrine of like stature. A tent for God will not do when you live in a “house of cedar.”
The prophet Nathan appears to go along with David’s plan. He does not distinguish between David’s will and God’s will. He assumes that, because “the Lord has given” to David, the Lord will give to David. The agenda of the king (lower case) starts to merge into the agenda of the KING (upper case). How convenient for the king when everyone buys into the merger.
The word of the Lord that came to Nathan underscores the shift that is occurring in the life of Israel. The Lord has indeed been mobile. God has moved among the people from the time God brought them out of Egypt to the present day (2 Samuel 7:6). God’s mobility has been their protection. As they moved, so did God.
What has been true for the historic community’s experience has also been the case for David individually: “I have been with you wherever you went” (7:9). But there is a twist.
David’s musing with Nathan had not stated any concern for the people David was to be shepherding. In contrast, in God’s words to Nathan, there is a stated purpose for God’s journeying with Israel and with David. God is “planting” Israel. Israel is also to have peace, a place undisturbed by enemies, a place without affliction. Giving rest to David is giving rest to the people.
There is a danger in the overlapping agendas. Kings can too quickly collapse them into one, assuming that their agenda is in the self-interest of the people. Again, this is more susceptible to abuse when the people buy into the king’s collapsing the agendas.
God has taken a risk by selecting an intermediary form that seeks permanence. Kingship was an ambiguous concession. Now, God enters into the risk by committing to the offspring of David. David wants to build a building; God instead commits to a dynasty.
The building will be the work of David’s descendent. But that deferral is accompanied by an even deeper commitment on God’s part! The language reaches its highest intensity in verse 14 with the image of father (God) and son (Solomon). The confusion of king and KING noted above pales before this image.
2 Samuel 7, with its Father (God) and son (king) image, is at the core of the messianic hope in the Old Testament. At its best, it is reflected in Psalm 72. At its worst, it opens the door for the abuses of imperial power which the prophets denounce (beginning with Nathan indicting David in 2 Samuel 12). The dynasty of David has a long run, but it does end.
Psalm 89:1-37 reiterates the pledge of God in 2 Samuel 7, but then ponders the downfall of the Davidic dynasty (Psalm 89:38-45). The exilic community had to ask whether or not God’s commitment to David was enduring, and, if not, where did they stand in relationship to God. If David’s kingship was to ground them in an undisturbed place (2 Samuel 7:10), what were they to make of the disruption and displacement of the exile?
The startling claim in the affliction of the exile was that God intensified the relationship once more, this time pledging to the entire community what had been so tightly focused in David. The promise to David became a promise to the entire people (Isaiah 55:3).
The disruption and displacement that occurs in the exile is partially anticipated in the verses immediately after the lectionary text. 2 Samuel 7:14b-17 speaks of punishment and chastisement. Such words require us to look beyond self-serving appropriations of God’s pledge.
In response to this warning, David’s prayer in the remainder of the chapter assumes a humbler, more petitionary nature. As preachers, consider including the words of chastisement (primarily 2 Samuel 7:14b) in the reading or in your message. They should not be left out.
But neither should verses 15-17. After words of warning come words of assurance and comfort. God promises David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me” (2 Samuel 7:16).
So too for us. We can be confident that God will keep God’s promises to us, now and forever.