Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’ But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 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 for ever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever. In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.
House and home?
‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish,’ says the host on a TV quiz show. But life is not always so accommodating. Circumstances, obstacles and the limits of time and strength can stop even our best intentions and initiatives from reaching fruition. At least they may not be fulfilled in our lifetime. So it was with King David and his plan to build a temple for the Lord. The project would be beyond him. This was a debt and dependence the Lord did not want. The king’s life would end with memories of all that God had done for David (vv.9-11), not with a long record of favours that David had done for God. His son Solomon would be the builder.
There is a tension in this story, which crops up often in Scripture. God does not need bricks and mortar. Temples cannot contain majesty. They might provide a focus, a meeting point, a touching place. Yet they never really hold God. Tent, travel and tabernacle have served adequately in the past (v.6). For you cannot limit, localise or lock up the Lord of heaven. Even the grandest building will always be a bit too small.
Which helps to explain the curious double meaning of ‘house’. A ‘house’ is a place for God to dwell in (vv.5, 6, 7, 13). It is also a heritage, a dynasty, to continue David’s royal line in Israel (vv.11, 16). So, although David never manages to build a ‘house’ for God, God still promises to build a ‘house’ for David. And this, in the fullness of time, brings us round to Jesus, in whom the two kinds of ‘house’ will meet. For he was called a new David, a kingly presence in Israel, an heir of the promise. And in his flesh, God dwelt among us.
God who dwelt in Jesus, abide with us. God who builds the church, strengthen your people to serve. God whose plans are sure, reach out in mercy to your world. God whose work spans the years, help us to be faithful in our day. God of the wide spaces and wild places, broaden our vision of your greatness. Through Jesus Christ, your presence and power. Amen.
The Rev’d John Proctor, General Secretary of the URC, member of Downing Place URC, Cambridge.