October 25, 2020
There has been a lot of political drama since last week. . . . In the biblical text, that is.
Between Hannah giving birth to Samuel and this week’s story of God’s covenant with David, the entire political structure of Israel has changed–from being ruled by judges to being ruled by a king. And their first king, Saul, made God angry so Samuel anointed David as king. Except Saul is still king for a while and he tries to kill David—who also has some sort of intimate (and covenanted) relationship with Saul’s son, Johnathan. Eventually Saul and Jonathan both die in battle and David is anointed king of Judah (the southern kingdom) and then, seven years and six months later, king of all of Israel (the United Kingdom). Once the kingdom is united, David builds his capital in Jerusalem, constructing a lavish house of cedar for himself and bringing the Arc of the Covenant to the city.
And that brings us to today’s reading from 2 Samuel 7:1-17.
Now when the king (David) was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 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.” 3 Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
4 But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6 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. 7 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?” 8 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; 9 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. 10 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, 11 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. 12 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. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 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. 15 But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
17 In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David. (NRSV)
To be honest, I find myself wanting to linger in the opening line of this reading:
“Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him . . .”
Let’s take just a moment to imagine this glorious circumstance: being settled, having rest. Hanging out with a friend. Dreaming big dreams. No COVID, no presidential debates, no feelings of being overwhelmed by the daily to-do list or the anxieties of deep injustices.
Being settled. Having rest. Lucky David, right?
Some scholars point out, though, how historically unlikely this scenario is—that King David had a leisurely period of time when there were no enemies threatening him. David and his army recently took the city of Jerusalem by force from the Jebusites, so they can’t be very happy with him. And once David is established in Jerusalem as king, the Philistines come looking for him. Maybe they’re still upset about what he did to Goliath? This all happens right before this supposed period of rest. And right after it—the very next chapter heading is “David’s Wars.”
So if, in fact, David did have a period of rest from all his enemies, it was likely very brief.
It’s possible, I think, that this scene between Nathan and David is not so much historical narrative as theological affirmation. Because the text of 2 Samuel–along with 1 Samuel, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Kings—was not written as the events they describe were unfolding. It was written during the Babylonian exile—about 500 years after David’s reign. When the city of Jerusalem—and the Temple—have been destroyed and many Israelites have been forcibly removed to Babylon.
When I came across that piece of information this week, it completely changed my reading of this passage. These words of God to David would have meant one thing for the triumphant kingdom of Israel, but something quite different, I imagine, for people in exile.
There is a sense in which our time–this COVID-time, this time of political anxiety and turmoil, this time of growing awareness of the racial, economic, and other injustices in our society—there’s a sense in which this is a time of exile.
We are exiled from some of the people and places and activities we love—
and for many that feeling of exile is growing deeper as the weather gets colder and the holidays draw near. And in addition to physical distancing, we may feel exiled socially and emotionally from friends and family who hold starkly different political and theological and social views than we do. There’s a disturbing sense I get sometimes that, as a culture, we are somehow exiled from logic, from reason, from truth right now.
Not all enemies show up as foreign armies. Not all exile involves being taken hundreds of miles away. I certainly acknowledge that our experiences in 2020 USA are very different from the experiences of the ancient Israelites in exile. And yet . . . I imagine that some of the emotional resonance of these words might be the same; that maybe these words are good words for people in exile regardless of time and place.
One important thing God does with these words is to remind the people of what God has done:
“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.”
God reminds David of where he came from and of what God has done in his life.
I’ve been thinking, what would God want to remind me of during this time? That God provided a way for me to have my children.
That God called me into ministry and brought me to the Mennonites and to Peace Mennonite. That God’s grace and the presence of God’s people have moved me through the grief of my father-in-law and my father dying. As I think of these things, I can close my eyes and almost hear God saying: “I have been with you wherever you went.”
Which of your memories helps you realize God’s presence with you in the past? . . .
This knowledge of God’s past presence can help us receive God’s promise of a presence that continues into the future. God says to David through Nathan:
“I will make for you a great name 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.”
These would be strange words for God to give to the people when this story takes place—when they are settled with a stable king who has had many military victories. But these words make perfect sense for a people in exile; a people whose name has been diminished, who have been violently disturbed and taken from their place.
“I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them.” Isn’t that what people in exile most desperately want? To be planted—firmly established—in a place; to have a true home?
And this place that we long for, it’s not just physical. We want to be part of a culture we understand, surrounded by people who understand us. That’s not to say we want everyone around us to agree with us about everything. (Though some days that’s all I really want.) But in order to feel solid and planted, we need to feel that we share at least a basic foundation with the people around us; that we hold the same values and hope for the same future.
To be honest, that’s not how I feel living in this country. As an Anabaptist, I’ve never felt completely at home, but the discomfort and dissonance are particularly destabilizing for me right now. And I hear God’s promise of a place to be planted with a great deal of longing and hope.
The final aspect of today’s text that may have been encouraging to people in exile is God’s seeming lack of enthusiasm for David’s idea of building a temple. One of the most devastating aspects of Israel’s exile was the destruction of the Temple that David’s son, Solomon, had built. It was an amazing, beautiful, expensive structure that served as the center of religious life for the Israelites. It was a sign that they were no longer nomads, but had claimed a place for themselves and their God.
The Temple was very important for the people of Israel; it seems from this text that it was less important to God. God seems perfectly happy to live in a tent, moving around with the people. God is present with or without the temple. The people know this. And it helps to be reminded.
I know that our little church building is no Solomon’s temple. We don’t have 15-foot high angel statues or 20 tons of gold covering the walls and floors. Still, it’s a nice little building with lots of natural light, a beautiful floor, and great acoustics.
And we can’t worship there together right now. Because of COVID, it has, in a sense, been temporarily taken from us—at least as a place of community worship. It’s OK that we’re sad about that. It’s OK that we miss it.
I think God is pleased that we worked together on the building project, that we created a space for worship and fellowship, a place from which we could engage in ministry. I also think God cares a lot less about that building than we do. God can take or leave our fancy—or not so fancy—places of worship. We know this. And it helps to be reminded.
Our God is a mobile, flexible God. God is wherever we are. Physically and otherwise.
God is with us in exile. . . . In our individual Bible reading, our family prayers, our on-line worship, our Zoom gatherings . . . We like to have temples, church buildings; we like them, but God doesn’t need them. And I know we know that. It’s just that exile helps us know that.
So, like the Israelites of David’s time, we live with intense political drama. And like the Israelites of the exile, we live in a time of loss and dislocation.
And like God’s people of all time, we live with the knowledge of what God had done for us in the past. We live with the promise of what God will do in our future. We live in the presence of God’s steadfast love, no matter where—or when—we happen to be.
Thanks be to God.