Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:1-14a
At first reading, we might want to applaud David’s desire to build God a house as grand as the one into which he himself has settled. It seems pious and holy, at first glance. Why shouldn’t God, the King of Kings, be treated at least as well as the royal of the land? The king, after all, is God’s “son” (Psalm 2; 2 Samuel 7:14a). God, after all, is the reason for David’s successes (verses 8-9).
For a man who had no place to lay his head, who had been on the run, there is a sigh of relief reflected in the first verses here (“God had given him rest from his enemies”) is almost audible. And where David has landed is no tent on the countryside, tending sheep. This cedar-laden, sturdy palace is grand and speaks of someone with power, resources, and authority. But if the king is God’s “son,” then how is it that the son fares better than the divine Father? That seems to be the question on David’s mind.
And it is a tortured question. To this point, God has dwelt among the people in a moveable tabernacle. They have known God to show up in miracles and plagues, in clouds and in fire. This story of the on-the-move God is the one that has kept them, in the presence of their enemies. Theirs is a God who is “just a miracle encounter” away. This God is different from the gods of the surrounding countries; this God dwells in a temple and the people must ascend the heights to encounter God.
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. And it would make ancient Israel “like the other nations,” which was the request of the people from the beginning of the first book of Samuel (see 1 Samuel 8). Though read as a rejection of God as the people’s only sovereign, since God yielded to the request, David—it would seem—wants to seal the deal with a grand “house” for God.
The preacher who has read thus far may note that what I’m pointing to is our human tendency to assume God wants what humans want, so we do for God what we would want. It is an inversion of Imago Dei. God is made in our image, not the other way around in this inversion. Even as I make note of this tendency, I must also note that God concedes to it, even after asking, “Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’” (2 Samuel 7:7). It has never been God’s desire to have a house of cedar. In another place, the prophet declares that the earth is God’s footstool and that everything we see was created by God, indicating that we cannot build a house big enough to contain the Sovereign of all creation (Isaiah 66:1-2). In a season where people are missing the building where they worship, I wonder whether the preacher can find in this dissonance some comfort from the God of tents and remind people that God meets us in buildings but is not constrained in them or by them.
God, on the other hand, is providing something much more lasting and intangible than a house made of cedar. God promises David a dynastic lineage that will become great in the world. If we are Bible readers, we know that this promise is thwarted by the exile, as there are many reasons given, though mostly that the people become idolatrous. In the portion of 2 Samuel 7:14 that the lectionary leaves out, God says it is inevitable: “When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.” Not “if” he commits iniquity, but “when.” Humans are, as the hymn writer wrote, “prone to wander … prone to leave the God [we] love.”
What I would invite preachers to reflect on is at least two things, given the transient nature of wealth and health. One, what does it mean to thank God for “rest from our enemies” and wealth, while holding the possibility that trouble could descend on our lives? Would we only be thankful and worshipful if we can give to God as good as we get? The writer of Ecclesiastes 1:13 asserts that life is full of “unhappy business” for humans. Life can be hard. David, and his lineage would experience as much. This passage is about the joy of settling into a home and making a home for God.
The second thing I invite preachers to consider is to remember that God likes camping among us, wherever we are. There is no place we can go from God’s presence, the psalmist declared (Psalm 139: 7-12). There may in fact be holy space, “thin places,” where we are imbued with the presence of God. But the story beyond this text of desire and promise reminds us that God is with us, regardless.