YEAR B: ADVENT 4
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
We take a break from Isaiah in this last week of Advent. The Gospel reading shifts again from Mark, this time to Luke 1:26-38, the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary. This Sunday is traditionally designated as one on which the Gospel focuses on Mary, hence the shift. In the annunciation the connection between Jesus and the house of King David is alluded to (Luke 1:27, 32). The reading from 2 Samuel makes the connection more explicit. It fills out the promise to David behind the New Testament allusion.
Throughout 1 Samuel David struggles with Saul. Saul and his sons are killed by the Philistines in 1 Samuel 31 and in the course of 2 Samuel 1:1-5:10 David is established as Saul’s successor to the throne. He goes further than Saul, who was essentially a king over only part of the country. David unites all the tribes of Israel in himself, and becomes king over all, eventually establishing his court in the ‘neutral’ Jebusite city of Jerusalem, his ‘Canberra’ or ‘Washington’. Such a neutral location ensured that power was located in David’s household rather than being divided between old tribal allegiances. We often think of David in rather romantic terms: ‘the sweet psalmist of Israel’ etc. In fact, he is pictured in several ways in the Bible, some not so flattering. In Samuel he is often seen as a shrewd political operator, as well as a mercenary.
In 2 Samuel 5-8 we read of David’s establishment of his kingdom, capital, and court. Things will go downhill after the episode with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) but for now David is seen in a positive light. 2 Samuel 7 is about David’s thoughts for building a temple for Yahweh, and the establishment of an eternal covenant with the house of David. It begins with what looks like a proper and righteous consideration by David. He suggests in a rhetorical statement to his prophet that it is improper for him to dwell in a palace when Yahweh lives in a tent (v. 2). He is referring to the tent of meeting which had travelled through the wilderness with the people and since entering the promised land had moved around among the tribes and the sacred places. Nathan is quick to respond in a positive way, but without any indication that the Lord speaks through him (v. 3).
In the night, however, the Lord does speak to Nathan. The Lord’s speech, which Nathan is to recount to David, recalls the history of the Lord’s presence with his people, ‘moving about in a tent and a tabernacle’ (v. 6). The rhetorical question which the Lord put’s to David is then this: has he ever suggested to any leader that they build him ‘a house of cedar’? The answer is no! The Lord then goes on to point out how he has taken David from ‘following the sheep’ to be prince over the Lord’s people (v. 8). The Lord has been with David, cut off all his enemies, made a great name for him, and appointed a place where he can settle his people. Moreover, rather than David building a house (temple) for the Lord, the Lord will build a house (dynasty) for David (v. 11). There is a play here on the Hebrew word bayit ‘house’ which can mean both a physical building and a household, i.e. dynasty. The last verse in today’s reading, v. 16, states that the ‘house’ the Lord will build for David will be established forever before the Lord.
There are some subtleties in this speech that ought not to be missed. It all sounds very ‘gentlemanly’: ‘Let me do this for you … no, no, I don’t expect that … rather let me do this for you’. But more is at stake than politeness and self-effacement. Note the contrasts. Will the Lord dwell in a moveable structure or a permanent one? Will the Lord be free to move among all his people or will he be tied to one place of David’s choosing? And who will build whom a house? What David suggests carries with it a whole set of political and theological assumptions and questions. How closely will the Lord be tied to David’s political structure? If David builds a temple it will be, in ancient Near Eastern practice, more a royal chapel than a public place of worship. The central symbol of Yahweh’s presence with all his people will be inextricably tied to David’s own rule. Divine presence and blessing will be tied to human power and politics, rather than being symbolically free to lead the people where Yahweh would take them.
What is evident in this text is probably part of a very old debate in Israel over the nature of religious symbolism, especially the temple, and its connection to the power structures within human society. It involves how free we perceive the Lord to be with his people. In the course of time, those pushing for a temple won the day. Solomon, David’s son, is recorded as building it for Yahweh. That resolution is foreshadowed in the part of Yahweh’s speech omitted from today’s reading (vv. 12-15).
As we approach Christmas we think of ‘incarnation’, God present in Jesus. But incarnation involves a lot more than God just being present in one human being. Through that one human life God becomes embroiled in the whole of human culture, history and society. How much does that restrict God being who God is? That is the question at stake in 2 Samuel 7. As David, genuinely according to the text, tries to honour the Lord with a temple, how much does that impinge upon the Lord being who he is for his people? How much will the Lord’s presence and activity be compromised by human affairs?
In the Lord’s speech in vv. 5-11, there is a claim for God’s ‘freedom’ with his people. It was that freedom that led them through the wilderness to the promised land, and much later in Israel’s story it will be that freedom that will lead the people out of exile (see the reading for Advent 2, Isa 40:1-11). But we also see in vv. 12-15, that the Lord does commit himself to David’s house. The Lord treads a fine line in his affairs with humankind and creation. Bound to the vicissitudes and frailties of the latter, the Lord maintains divine freedom to the point which allows him to lead his people and all creation to new life. This is what we anticipate in the annunciation of the birth of Jesus. Jesus stands in a long royal tradition going back to David according to Luke. On the other hand, this king comes in the surprisingly vulnerable form of an infant, born to a young woman of unimpressive heritage: a truly remarkable invitation to new life and to a kingdom ruled by love and forgiveness, in which things will not always be what we expect.
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
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