YEAR B: PENTECOST
(Sunday between July 10 and July 16)
2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Prior to this text, Jerusalem had been established as a political and military centre under the leadership of David. The king had built himself a palace in Jerusalem (2 Sam 5:11) and ruled from there. After considerable difficulties and delays, David finally brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and placed it in a tent he had constructed (2 Sam 6:17). The Book of Chronicles identifies the location of the tent as Gibeon (1 Chron 16:39), which was about 8 km north west of Jerusalem. Up to this time the text tells us that the Lord had dwelt only ‘in a tent and in a tabernacle’ (2 Sam 7:6). But David has other plans and in today’s reading turns his attention to building a temple in Jerusalem, a permanent location for worship of Israel’s God, Yahweh.
David first approaches the prophet Nathan to get some advice on his plans. His pitch to the prophet sounds humble and reasonable enough: ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ (2 Sam 7:2) David’s motives seem laudable. At first, David receives approval from the prophet Nathan (v. 3) but during the night a subsequent message comes from the Lord through the prophet which changes the plans. In the divine speech, as conveyed by Nathan, several things are pointed out. First, the Lord has not lived in a ‘house’ since he brought the people of Israel out of Egypt (vv. 5-7). This passage is not just about the graciousness of the Lord in not demanding a suitable dwelling. Rather, it makes the central point that this God of Israel is one whose very nature is to be ‘on the move’ and to be calling his people to follow. He has travelled with them out of a place of captivity to one where they can dwell secure (cf. v. 10). This is a God who travels with his people and whose sanctuary, the symbol of his presence, is not one which radiates permanence and fixity, but pilgrimage and journey.
Secondly, just as the Lord has delivered his people and been with them so he has been with David from the time of his following the sheep, through the difficulties of dealing with his enemies, right up to the time when he promises to make a great name for David, that is establish his reputation and dynasty (vv. 8-9). Finally, just as the Lord has made a place of safety for his people, so he will establish rest for David. He will create a ‘house’ for David. There is a clever play on words going on here around the common word ‘house’, for it can mean both a building and a family, or in David’s case, a royal dynasty. The word ‘house’ can also be used to refer to a temple, which is, of course, the ‘house’ David was intending to build for the Lord (cf. vv. 2, 5). Beyond the play on words, the emphasis in the text is clearly not upon the establishment of a place for God as much as upon the settlement and peace established by God for Israel and David.
To this is added in vv. 11b-14a a promise that the Lord will establish David’s descendant on his throne. This is the beginning of the dynasty. The passage even goes on beyond today’s assigned reading to spell out that should David’s descendant transgress, the Lord will not forego his promise. The permanency of the dynasty is divinely assured. The final part of the chapter develops the theme of the covenant established between the Lord and the house of David (cf. Psalm 89 which is set for today). Of course, the editors of the text knew what would later happen as they looked back on David’s reign, recording and reshaping that ancient tradition. They knew that David’s dynasty would endure for some 400 years. They also knew that Solomon would be the one to build a temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5-7) and the promise of the Lord makes this specific reference (2 Sam 7:13).
While the story has its own points to make, such as the presence of a God who goes with his people on their journey and whose chief concern is their security and rest not his own, we should be aware of the implications that lie beyond the surface of the text. The contrast between the tent or tabernacle that had been the Lord’s ‘house’ since the Exodus, and the house that David envisages for the Lord – like his own a house of cedar and the best materials – should not be dismissed too quickly. Hidden in that contrast are tremendous theological, political and social issues.
What David was proposing was nothing short of a major upheaval to the way people understood the God of Israel and the way power was distributed within the society. The permanence of a temple structure stood not for a God who travelled with his people on their journey, but one who expected his people to come to him. The ‘house’ Solomon did eventually build for the Lord turned out to be more a private royal chapel than a public building (it was smaller than the royal palace) and was constructed by people conscripted to forced labour (1 Kgs 5:13). All of this placed the royal ‘house’ in a prominent position over the people and firmly supported by the religious structures. The Lord was now accessible only through those royal structures. Such a change was far from the image of a deity who dwelt in the less impressive dwelling of a tent implying one who moved with and ahead of the people themselves. Of course, the more permanent structure would be established in time, along with the social changes implied in it. But the message of the prophet Nathan to David suggests that as with the adoption of the institution of kingship itself (1 Samuel 8-12), there was a lot of debate over these momentous changes before they were ever adopted. Maybe the upshot of 2 Samuel 7 is that David proved a more astute politician than his son after him and did not force radical change upon his people before they were willing to accept it.
For some slightly different remarks on this text see the comment for Advent 4 earlier this year.
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