Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
This week’s First Testament text is a familiar one from 2 Samuel. David, having consolidated his reign and established momentary peace in Israel, wonders aloud to the prophet Nathan whether it is fitting for him to live comfortably in a well-built house while the Ark of the Covenant, the most conspicuous and immediate symbol of God’s presence with Israel, remains in a tent.
The subtext here is pretty obvious; David has in mind the construction of a temple that will be a proper dwelling place for God, and Nathan assures him – at least initially – that he should proceed. Nathan’s assurance, however, is short-lived. That evening God speaks to him, telling him to go to David and inform him that there is no need to build a temple, at least not now.
The explanation God offers, though terse, is theologically illuminating and indicative of things to come, not simply in this particular text, but in the subsequent history of God’s redemptive work.
First, the LORD reminds Nathan, the tent of meeting, or Tabernacle (Exodus 25-27), has sufficed as a dwelling place for the past 300-plus years and will continue to do so. This is not a reflection of God’s smallness so much as it is a reference, as Wendell Berry puts it, to his “largeness and at-largeness.” The God of Israel is the Creator of the universe and can be contained neither physically nor conceptually by even the biggest temple; it follows, then, that he does not require a temple.
The LORD goes on, secondly, to instruct the prophet to remind David of the king’s own humble beginnings: “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel.” David’s rise to eminence is offered both as analogous to and evidence of the LORD’s sufficiency to accomplish his redemptive purposes; the implication being that just as David has proven himself to be a mighty warrior and wise leader in spite of his origins, no temple, however conspicuously ornate, can add one whit to God’s sovereignty over history.
It is important at this point to note that God’s work in history is typically mediated by God’s people. The pattern of their life together is in some sense God’s presence to the world, the proximate and partial fulfillment of God’s promise to Abram that his descendants would be God’s means of blessing “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).
Moreover, nothing in what God says in this passage to David through Nathan controverts this basic notion. The LORD assures the king that the work begun under David’s reign will continue, promising David that:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.
The immediate historical fulfillment of this promise occurs soon enough, when David’s son Solomon becomes king and builds the first Jerusalem temple (1 Kings 6). Yet the promise to David has a second theological horizon, and it would be a mistake to suggest that the reign of Solomon was its fulfillment.
In fact, as Walter Brueggemann and others have pointed out, it is under Solomon that the prophet Samuel’s warnings to Israel about the especially unhappy dimensions of monarchy (1 Samuel 8:4-18) are most clearly realized. According to Brueggemann, Solomon’s reign represented the rejection of the revolutionary faith and community established under Moses and the establishment of an imperial consciousness and practices not unlike those Israel had experienced in Egypt.
The Jerusalem temple served as the anchor for what Brueggemann called “Canaanization in Israel,” the establishment of a kind of paganism characterized by the affluence of a select, powerful few at the expense of the powerless masses, undergirded by a “controlled, static religion in which God and his temple have become part of the royal landscape, in which the sovereignty of God is fully subordinated to the purposes of the king.”
Clues as to the true fulfillment of the promise to David exist in the text itself, and are echoed in the Psalter. God’s declaration that “the LORD will make you [David] a house” (v. 11) refers not to a brick and mortar dwelling place, but to the Davidic lineage, which will endure “forever.” The Psalmist riffs on this assurance, saying (of David) that:
He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’ I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him, and my covenant with him will stand firm. I will establish his line forever, and his throne as long as the heavens endure (vv. 26-29).
During and after the Exile, Jews came to see these promises as allusions to the Messiah, a descendant of David who would liberate them from oppression and establish among them the reign of God’s shalom.
The New Testament authors and the Church Fathers after them identified Jesus of Nazareth, the “son of David,” as the fulfillment of the promise to David and the Messianic hope that promise helped birth. In the epistle to the Ephesians, the author offers an account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that makes effective use of the language of the First Testament and its references to God’s “house.” It is the community of the baptized – both Jew and Gentile – that now constitutes
(the) household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God (vv. 19-22).
Here we are offered a glimpse of the way God’s redemptive work is accomplished across the arc of the biblical narrative: the descendants of Abram, whom God promised would be God’s blessing to the families of the earth, give rise to the Israel, whom God delivers from bondage and to whom God gives a law to shape them into the kind of people through whom the healing of the creation might be accomplished.
That people’s paradigmatic king, David, received from God the promise of a descendant who would establish an everlasting reign that would be God’s ongoing earthly habitation. Jesus of Nazareth did precisely that, establishing through his cross and resurrection a “new humanity,” reconciling to God and to one another women and men from every tribe, whose life together would be to the world a sign and foretaste of the shalom God intends for all creation.
Those of us who profess to follow Jesus are obliged to live out the reconciliation his cross makes possible; first with those fellow Christians with whom we share a baptism, without respect to race, class, or gender. Such reconciliation requires of some of us the surrender of the prerogatives of power to which we have become accustomed.
This is difficult and even painful work, and it cannot hope to succeed apart from a copious dispensation of grace. The good news is that the dispenser of grace is the one who promised David a descendant whose kingdom would be everlasting, and who kept that promise by raising Jesus from death. Thanks be to God.