2 Samuel 7:1–17
Four pillars stand across the front of John L. Hill Chapel on the campus of Georgetown College. When I was a student there, I passed by those pillars every time I went to chapel service. Every time I went to the Campus Ministries office where I worked. Every time I went to one of my religion classes in the basement. Or sometimes just to pause and sit in the quiet of the chapel space.
Those four pillars could be seen most everywhere on campus, as the chapel was the physical and theological and symbolic center of the Baptist school. Straight out from those pillars to the south was the Quad, where most of the students lived. To the east was the football field and basketball gym, centers of community life. To the north was the student center where the Cafeteria and bookstore were. To the west was the library and administration building, Giddings Hall. Incidentally, there are six pillars on the front of Giddings, and legend has it that Elijah Craig, Baptist preacher and one of the founders of the college, placed a barrel of his new invention—Kentucky bourbon—inside of each of those columns when it was built. But that is a sermon for another day.
Today, we are talking about the four pillars. And just like the four pillars at the front of the symbolic center of the campus, today’s Scripture passage is at the theological and symbolic center of the Old Testament. Bruce Birch, Kathryn Schifferdecker, Walter Brueggemann, and others see this as a critical passage. It sets the theological tone for the rest of the Old Testament, and echoes into the New Testament and mission and purpose of Christ.
Let’s get caught up. Last week, Samuel was born to Hannah. That was also an important pivotal moment in the Old Testament, as the era of the Judges was coming to an end, and the era of the Kings was beginning. After Samuel grew up, he would anoint the first King of the United Kingdom—Saul—and when that didn’t turn out so well, he would anoint his successor—David. By this point in the narrative, David has opposed Saul, defeated Saul on the battlefield and in the hearts and minds of the people, begun to solidify and consolidate his power, and right before this, brought the Ark of the Covenant into his new capital city, Jerusalem.
As chapter 7 opens, David is sitting with Nathan, who is mentioned here for the very first time, who appears to be one of his trusted advisors, perhaps a leadership councilmember. David has a palace and muses out loud to Nathan that God needs a palace, too. “I have a “bayit,” a house made of cedar. But the Ark of God resides in a tent. I should build a house for the ark. A house for God.” Nathan, who doesn’t see anything wrong with it, gives him the thumbs up. “Go for it, your highnessness. It’s good to be the king.” And he headed home for the night.
But there was something wrong with it. Here’s the problem. While there was probably something relatively honest and heartfelt and thankful about David’s desire to build a Temple for the Ark, there was also something a little devious and manipulative. Kings of the time usually built two buildings in their quest for legitimacy: a palace/fortress, to show everyone who is boss, and a temple, to show everyone that God approved of the boss. Deep down, there was something in David’s motive that searched for legitimacy and power. “I’ll just stick God right here, in my back pocket, where everyone can see that God approves of me. Let’s make sure that we get God out of that tent…wouldn’t want him running off now, would we?” David sought legitimacy. Nathan gave him the thumbs up. Sounds like a plan.
Until that night, when God showed up. In the middle of the night, Nathan has a vision of God. Apparently, he spoke too soon. God has something different in mind for David and for the people of God. When Nathan showed up in the throne room of the king the next day, he delivered this oracle. And his words become the theological center for much of the Old Testament, if not the Bible itself. Let me point out four phrases…four theological movements…four pillars…that anchor the passage.
First, God says through Nathan, “Are you going to build me a house? No, I am going to build you a house.” There is a play on the Hebrew word bayit. It can mean house or dwelling or temple, but it can also mean dynasty. As in “The House of David.” This passage is where that phrase is born. In this moment, God legitimizes for David a legacy and a dynasty. God speaks of David’s history, reminding him that he brought him out of the fields and made him king, that God gave him success in battle and solidified his power. But not only that, but his son, and his son’s son, and his son after that, would be the center of power for God’s people forever. His family, his dynasty, his house, would rule God’s people. And it extends into the New Testament, as well. Perhaps you caught it in the passage that Neal read—Christians in the New Testament were sure to make the connection between David and Jesus. That the Messiahship, the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to re-establish, was a part of this same dynasty. Theologically, this is referred to as incarnation. God’s presence on earth. Nathan promises that incarnation to David and his house, and Christians capitalize the I to refer to The Incarnation, the ultimate “God with us.” The first thing that God legitimizes through Nathan is God’s building of the House of David, the dynastic power.
ArSecond, God gets a little chippy with David. “Did I ever ask for a house?” Here is where God pushes back on David’s attempt to legitimize himself. God’s point here is that God doesn’t need a house. The tent works just fine. Every attempt to domesticate God, to control or capture God, to use God as a political legitimizer, will ultimately fail. In this theological movement, the key word is sovereignty. God asserts sovereignty over David and the people. “Thanks for the offer, but I’ll be doing the building around here.” God insists on sovereignty. God insists on mystery. God will be placed in no one’s back pocket. The power of the Ark in a tent or a tabernacle wasn’t accidental. God is a God on the move. God is a God of mystery. God will not be domesticated or controlled. Again, the New Testament continues this theological theme with the person of the Holy Spirit. Symbolized by wind or fire, the Spirit is the least predictable, least domesticated person of the Trinity. The sovereignty and mystery of God remain in the New Covenant as well.
In the third pillar, God eases off on David a little bit. Verse 12 and 13 say, “when…you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you…and he will build a house for my name.” In other words, God tells David, “don’t worry, we’ll get to a house for me soon enough. Your son will build it, and all will be fine.” In this third theological pillar, God legitimizes the Temple and the heart of worship of the Hebrew people. You can start to see why this passage is so important to the theology of Scripture. Temple worship remains a part of the people of God through the era of the kings. And even as the Temple is destroyed and the people are exiled, worship is central to who they are. Ezra and Nehemiah, as soon as they can get back to Jerusalem, are building the Temple again. Of course, as we turn the page to the Gospels, we find a Jesus who teaches in the synagogue, the place of worship. A Jesus who insists that the Temple be a house of prayer and not a den of thieves. A Jesus who institutes a meal of worship on the night before he was killed, and who returns to that meal on the evening of his Resurrection: “did we not know him when he broke the bread with us.” The heart of worship that is named and instituted here echoes throughout the whole of the history of the people of God.
Finally, there is a fourth theological pillar introduced here. Incarnational Dynasty. Mystery and Sovereignty. The Heart of Worship. And perhaps the most important theological movement of all: grace. “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….” That Hebrew word, hesed, steadfast love, loving kindness, is used in a way that reminds the people that even if the kings of David falter, even if they sin or fall away, even if the people of God mess up royally—which (spoiler alert) they will—God will still offer loving kindness. Brueggemann reminds that the language of the Mosaic covenant was “if”: “if you obey, it will go well for you.” But the shift here is significant; instead of “if” the word is “nevertheless.” Regardless of the sin, there will be grace. Now, there will be punishment, but it will not be eternal, not be divine, not be forever. It will human, mortal, limited. What will be immortal, unlimited, forever, will be grace. Again, this is the word of II Samuel, but it has echoes throughout the New Testament, and the history of the Church, as well. Jesus preaches grace in all he does. Paul insists upon institutionalizing grace into the early Church. Today is the day that many churches recognize as Reformation Sunday, when Martin Luther insisted upon faith rooted in grace, and not on works and earned salvation.
In this passage, God legitimizes the incarnational dynasty, sovereignty and mystery, institutional worship, and grace. God will be a God of loving kindness. Of grace. Period. End of story. Mic drop.
Thus endeth the lesson. And Nathan turns on his heel and walks out the door.
“That’s all well and good, preacher. Glad you figured out how to put your Powerpoint on the livestream and all. But I have to go back and re-learn math again so I can help my kid figure it out virtually. I have to figure out how to keep my octogenarian parents from going to the grocery store three times a day. I have to figure out what is safe and what isn’t for my family and my friends and myself, while I get mixed messages from our leaders. I have to figure out how NOT to go crazy with all these stupid regulations and restrictions and limitations and masks. I have to figure out where the money is coming from after they cut my hours. Cut my pay. Cut my job. I have to figure out what to do with this tremendous and never-ending pit of loneliness in which I find myself, day in and day out.
“What does David and Nathan even look like in 2020? Why does it even matter? What does it have to do with my faith? With my church? What does this stuff even look like at the First Baptist Church of Lawrence, Kansas in 2020? How are we supposed to be church when we are just trying to keep our heads above water? I like your big seminary words up there, preacher, but what are we supposed to do with this stuff? How do I translate this to my life?”
I was sitting in my office at home this week, and I had figured out the theological movements, and the four pillars, and Hill Chapel, and I turned to ask what it has to do with us, and I had this “whoa” moment:
- Incarnational dynasty: Work. Just like the kings were the presence of God on earth, God has called us to be the hands and feet of Christ.
- Mystery and sovereignty: Wonder. We stop trying to domesticate God and wonder about who God is in our hearts and our lives and our world.
- Heart of worship: Worship. The Temple is not the same, but the heart of worship of God’s people has never changed.
- Grace: unconditional Welcome. If God offers never-ending grace, who are we to put up roadblocks to those who would seek God in this place?
Many of you know these words as part of our mission and vision and purpose. We may be the only ones who use those four words, but aren’t by any stretch the only ones who have done these things. How do we be church in 2020? We be who we have always been. For 165 years, we have welcomed, worshipped, worked, and wondered. In the tradition and legacy of the Church. In the tradition and legacy of the people of God.
And I am not just trying to be cute, here. Not just trying to connect this to the mission statement of the congregation. This stuff matters. Especially now, this stuff matters. One of our Finance Team said it a couple of weeks ago, “Now more than ever, this stuff is important.”
To be who God has called us to be. In the middle of this long narrative journey, the next four weeks focus on a new era: the era of the prophets. Four prophets will bring us back to these four theological movements. These four pillars. Just like they had to bring the people of God back to them when they were alive and preaching. In these next weeks, four of the prophets will pull us back to these four pillars of the faith.
Nathan has reordered David’s world, and walked out of the throne room, leaving him alone and a little lost. The next verse says that David “went in and sat before the Lord, and said ‘Who am I….?’” He has a come to Jesus moment with, well, Jesus. He sat in the presence of the Triune God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and took all of this stuff that he had just heard…and prayed. David prays a beautiful and heartfelt and humble prayer of obedience and hope. He quiets himself. Centers himself. Humbles himself and thanks God for the promises he has heard. Asks himself again “Who am I?” in the middle of the change and chaos of his life.
This week, and in these weeks ahead, let us “go in and sit before the Lord.” Let us ask who we are called to be. Let us focus our lives on the work of Christ. Let us open our eyes with humble wonder to the mystery of God. Let us open our hearts to the blessing of worship. And let us find ourselves welcomed into the arms of a graceful and loving God. Let us find again who we are in the eyes of the one who made us. Let us become again, who we were always made to be.