Buy the best house, in the best location, that you can afford, conventional wisdom tells us. But God, it turns out, doesn’t want to be pinned down.
Read the scripture passage here.
Read the Working Preacher commentary here.
After years of war and chaos, now David is the king, ready to do kingly things. Once he’s settled, first on his list is building a house for God. The first king, Saul, has been killed in battle, along with his son and David’s companion, Jonathan. The tribes of Israel ask David to be their king (5:3) and David solidifies his hold on the nation by taking the city of Jerusalem in battle. The stronghold of Zion is now called the city of David. (5:7)
After years of battle, David settles in one place, in a house built for him by the King of Tyre. Living in a house, being in one place without the need to go out to battle, allows David to understand that he really is the king now. “David then perceived that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel.” After a last battle with the Philistines, David sends for the Ark of the Covenant, ready to bring it to Jerusalem.
Comfortable in his own home, David starts to think about a building to house the ark. It feels wrong to him to live in comfort, while the ark, holding the presence of God, is still in a tent. The prophet Nathan carries God’s words to David, speaking for God to say that God has been on the move for a long time now. The divine presence has traveled with the people in a tent from Sinai, through all of their travels, into this new land, through the time of the judges. The holy presence has never been contained in a building, and God is not ready to settle into a fixed dwelling place even now. David might be settled, but God doesn’t want to be yet.
God reminds David that God is the one doing the building here. God lists everything that God has done to build him up – turning him from shepherd to warrior to king. God’s actions shifts from past to future, and we hear God make a covenant with David, promising to raise up future generations for David, to build up the nation, and to make sure the people are secure. God will build up the household of David, giving the throne to David’s descendants. Walter Brueggeman says that this “is the dramatic and theological center of the entire Samuel corpus . . . one of the most crucial texts in the Old Testament for evangelical faith.” (in I and II Samuel, as cited by Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall: Earthly Spirituality for Everyday Christians)
Like Job, David is reminded of the magnificence of God, and of his own smallness, even though he is the king. All of it depends on God, and the plans God has for him and for the nation. As Eugene Peterson puts it, “David, full of what he’s going to do for God, is now subjected to a comprehensive rehearsal of what God has done, is doing, and will do for and in David. What looked yesterday like a bold Davidic enterprise on behalf of God now looks picayune” (Leap Over a Wall) David’s reaction to God’s “no” is to come back to the presence of God. “Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said, ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” His response is not anger, but praise, remembering all that God has done for him. He enters back into a place of humility before God.
- The prophet Nathan first agrees with David about building a dwelling place for God, assuming that this will meet with God’s approval. Then God speaks up, and says no. Have you experienced a “no” from God? What was it like? Painful? A relief? Embarrassing?
- God says no to David’s desire to build a place to for the divine presence to dwell. Why do you think God says no? Does God not want to be trading favors with David? Is the glory of God too magnificent to be tamed and contained in a building? Does God want to stay on the move a while longer? Is God reminding David that they’re not equal, that God’s favor can’t be repaid?
- Someone else will build God’s house, Nathan tells David. The sermon might explore how we know what God wants us to do, and how we let go of work that belongs to someone else. Congregations are filled with resentful people who are doing too much, and bored people who don’t feel engaged. How do we hear what God is truly asking us to do, and leave other people’s work to them?
- Nathan brings God’s voice to David, bringing him news he doesn’t want to hear. How do we react to people who tell the unwanted, uncomfortable truth in our congregations, or in our shared public life?
- Or the sermon might look at why David can’t hear God directly about this. Does he need someone else who knows God’s plans to keep him accountable? Does the covenant need a witness? Has all of the activity of the past years of battle dulled David’s ears to God? The sermon might explore the times when we, too, need someone else to listen to God for us.
- Where are your thoughts taking you this week? Please share in the comments section below. We look forward to continuing the conversation with you.
Rev. Mary Austin serves as pastor of Westminster Church, a multi-cultural congregation in Detroit. She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City.
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(Image above the sculpture “Covenant” is by Alexander Liberman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library)