Comments and Observations
In his commentary on I and II Samuel Walter Brueggemann makes the bold claim that this text from II Samuel 7 is the centerpiece to the whole of the Samuel corpus and is a crucial text for the church to pay attention to in this day and age as well. In the comments that follow in this set of sermoncommentaries I’ll be indebted to Brueggemann but also to Eugene Peterson and his book Leap over a Wall, a book about the life of David that I highly recommend (even though if you read it, you won’t need my help in preaching on the life of David!).
As we come to this chapter, we know that David is riding the crest of the wave. He’s gotten rid of his enemies. Those who opposed David are dead or silent. His approval ratings are sky high from the Israelites, and it’s probably true that David could at this point do pretty much whatever he wanted and he’d get away with it. The people trust him enough that if he issued a decree, an edict, or declared some new set of laws, they would assume (initially at least if not over the long haul) that it was for their good and so they’d be only too happy to follow what the king said.
David has not yet discovered his own propensity to let all this go to his head. That will come soon enough in the upcoming incident with Bathsheba. For now, the world was David’s oyster and he was starting to think that he could do no wrong, not even in God’s sight. His pastor, Nathan, obviously believed that, too, and so when David proposed that he build God a house at least as grand as the cedar-paneled executive mansion he was occupying as Israel’s king, Nathan didn’t even have to pray about it before giving David the divine go-ahead. “Even God is your oyster, King David,” Nathan as much as said. “If you do it, God approves.”
Scarily enough, it reminds me of the outrageous line from Richard Nixon in the Frost interviews: “If the president does it, it is not illegal.” If David does it, it is the will of God. By definition.
As Peterson says, Nathan had probably spent his life the way most of us pastors spend our ministries; namely, he was forever being asked to pray to God FOR something that people needed. “Pray for my marriage, pastor . . . Pray for my wayward child, pastor . . . Pray that I can turn my business around, pastor . . . Pray with me for those lab results that are due back on Monday, pastor . . .”
Now, finally, Nathan encounters someone who wants to give back, who wants to do something for God. Wonderful! Finally a God-fearing believer who has turned the corner from neediness to generosity! What’s more, it’s David, the man after God’s own heart. This is a slam dunk. No need to pray. No need to mediate on this or sleep on it or check with God on it. “Go ahead, David. The Lord is with you.”
And the Lord was with David, and that is precisely why that same Lord had to put the brakes on here. David was about to trot down a path that may have looked as innocent as could be but that could well have led him to the kind of arrogant self-sufficiency that could be his undoing (and that very nearly would be his undoing as it was with Bathsheba and all the mayhem that led to). So God has to get into Nathan’s face with a long oracle.
As Peterson points out, there is no missing the message here: it’s not about David and what he can do for God. This is about God and what God alone can do for David. That’s why Yahweh is the subject of no less than 23 active verbs in verses 5-16—that averages nearly two per verse! What David is all about is not what he can do for God but what God has done and will do through David but for God’s glory, not David’s.
Of course, what God goes on to promise David is pretty spectacular. It humbles David to hear it. Although it goes just beyond the boundaries of this particular Old Testament lection (the Lectionary seems to shy away from the part about how God will punish David’s son if and when need be), we read in verse 18 that David’s response to Nathan’s message was to go and sit before the Lord. That passiveness of David’s posture is, as Peterson notes, wholly apropos. No more strutting around. No more standing up to tell God what was what and what he was going to do for God. It’s time to sit and be quiet and humbly receive what God alone can give.
David may be the man after God’s own heart but as it turns out, he most certainly cannot do whatever it is he wants. Even spiritually alive people, even those who not only claim to have a close relationship with God but who actually have that kind of a connection to God, even they now and then need to be reminded that God is in charge and that his ways are not necessarily our ways.
David was upset that God was still living in that sorry old tent same as had been the case during all those wilderness years of wandering when also the people of God were in tents. But now that David and the others in Jerusalem were doing better and had nice roofs over their heads, David assumed God would want and need the same thing. Divine dignity demanded it. A humble tent could never do for the great God of the universe!
But as it turned out, God was more interested in building David a house than having it be the other way around. And maybe the reason was because in the divine plan, it would be the house and line of David that would one day bring to this world the incarnate Son of God who was needed to bring salvation.
God didn’t mind living in a tent. As the Apostle John will one day reveal to the world, when the time had fully come, God would “tent” among his people yet again (John 1:14) and that it was precisely the humble nature of that abode of skin that would finally spell the salvation of all.
From Eugene Peterson, Leap over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians. San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1997, pp. 160-61.
“God’s word to David through Nathan was essentially this: “You want to build me a house? Forget it—I’m going to build you a house. The kingdom that I’m shaping here isn’t what you do for me but what I do through you. I’m doing the building here, not you. I’m not going to let you confuse things by launching a building operation of your own. If I let you fill Jerusalem with the sights and sounds of your building program—carpenters’ hammers, masons’ chisels, teamsters’ shouts—before long everyone will be caught up in what you are doing, and not be attentive to what I am doing. This is a kingdom that we’re dealing with, and I am the king. I’ve gotten along without a so-called house for a long time now. Where did you ever come up with the idea that I need or want a house? If there’s any building to be done, I’m doing it.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 19, 2015
2 Samuel 7:1-14a Commentary