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The David Story 6: A Royal Misunderstanding

July 22, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 22, 2012. This is the sixth sermon in our summer series on the Book of Samuel and the biblical David.

 Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56          2 Samuel 7: 1-14a

This is our sixth sermon in our summer series on the Book of Samuel, following the rise and fall of the biblical David. We reach today the theological high point of the story: an unprecedented promise made to David: God will preserve and protect, though always chasten and correct, the royal line of David.

Listen for the Word of God.  [Read 2 Samuel 7: 1-14a]

There are three thing we can learn from this passage. The first is that we have a great capacity for misunderstanding what God would have us understand.

There is no indication whatsoever that David senses the irony in the words he speaks “It is not right that I should live in a cedar palace while the ark of God should dwell in a tent.”

David is referring, of course, to the Ark of the Covenant, the golden chest containing the original Ten Commandments and a jar of heavenly manna. Ever since the time of Moses it was believed that Yahweh, the God who led them into freedom, chose to sit enthroned upon the Ark. Four golden angels spread their eight golden wings across the top of the Ark to create a seat upon which God could sit. During the time of the tribal confederation, Israel carried the Ark into battle, believing that in doing so God rode ahead of them leading them to victory. During times of peace the Ark was housed in a tabernacle, a kind of portable tent. The tent was the ultimate sign that the God who led them out of Egypt was free, always on the move, coming and going among God’s people, never to be a settled and domestic God of empire. You may recall from last week that when David established Jerusalem as the royal city for the united kingdom of Israel and Judah, he erected a tent in the heart of the city, right next to the royal palace, and placed the Ark within it. In doing so he was acknowledging this important aspect of Israel’s past.

But now he says, “It is not right that I should live in a cedar palace while the ark of God should dwell in a tent.” Of course it’s not. But the problem is the [cedar] palace, not the tent.

From the time he was a child tending the sheep in his father’s field, David has unconditionally trusted in God and God’s purpose for his life. From his first fight with the giant Goliath to his final battle with the Philistines, he has always sought God’s voice before every important decision and given praise to God when his deeds were done. But now that he is king, David appears to be doing everything he can to portray himself as a typical Bronze Age king.

For example, once he had established a royal city as his personal possession and pacified the Philistines, David grew in honor among the gentile nations, and they all sent representatives to Jerusalem to pay him tribute. (2 Sam 5). King Hiram of Tyre even sent David cedar logs, bricklayers and carpenters to help him build an ornate palace worthy of a king in the region. What smooth and seductive praise for Israel’s new king.

And so standing on the balcony of his royal palace, looking out upon his imperial city, David’s eye falls on the tent, this simple structure of pole and fabric, symbol of Israel’s tribal past; and he thinks, “The God who has so richly blessed me surely deserves better. Just as a king needs a palace, a God needs a temple.” And he says, “It is not right that I should live in a cedar palace while the ark of God should dwell in a tent.”

Something’s not right, that’s for sure. But the problem is not the simple tent but the cedar palace. David speaks truth, but gets the meaning exactly wrong. In fact, David’s palace will lead generations of Israel’s kings to mistake the symbols of power, wealth and security for the real demands of compassion, peace and justice.

For the next three centuries, prophets will speak words to David’s descendents – like these words spoken by to prophet Jeremiah to Shallum, who was then renovating David’s palace:

How terrible for Shallum

who builds his house with corruption

and his upper chambers with injustice,

working his countrymen for nothing,

refusing to give them their wages.

.

He says, “I’ll build myself a grand palace,

with huge upper chambers,

ornate windows

cedar paneling

and rich red décor.

.

Is this what makes you a king.

having more cedar than anyone else?

Is it not to defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Isn’t that what it means to know me? (Jeremiah 22: 13-16, CEB)

David here is all too human in confusing his own desires with God’s desires. Or is it confusing his own desires with what will please God. Who hasn’t thought “this will make me happy. And God wants me to be happy, right?”[1]

We all seem to have an infinite capacity for misunderstanding God’s purposes among us, especially when self-interest or praise is involved. But you have to give David the courage of his convictions. He acts decisively to give God the honor he thinks God deserves. How many of us can say the same? Perhaps that is what God admired in David – the willingness to move straight from his theological convictions to action in the world.

The second thing to note in this story is that, while we have a great capacity for misunderstanding, God sends us help.

Enter Nathan the prophet. This is the first mention in scripture of a man who will play such an important role David’s story, and it’s not a very auspicious start. Nathan appears to already be well known to the David and close at hand so that he can be easily consulted by the King when important matters arise. And he seems to be a typical court prophet – the kind that tell the king what he wants to hear. And so he does. When David expresses his desire to build God a temple, Nathan says to David, “You may do what your heart desires.” His first impulse is to please the king.

But after issuing such easily spoken words, Nathan can’t sleep. God troubles his dreams. And God gives him a new word:

from the day I brought the Israelites up out of the land of Egypt to this day

I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling.

Have I ever asked those I have chosen to shepherd my people,

“Why have you not built me a house of Cedar?”

If we are prone to misunderstanding, prophecy is the ministry of communicating.[2] Prophets like Jeremiah knew how to give voice to the demands of justice, especially when speaking on behalf of the marginalized and forgotten, even when the one forgotten is God. In the word of my friend Barbara [Blodgett],

Prophets urge others, by deed and especially by word, to see things anew and think in new ways. [They] get us to feel the weight of injustice. [They] open our minds by delivering powerful indictments of the way things are and proclaiming a vision for how things ought to be. [Their] virtue is the ability to articulate what others are missing. They tell stories, craft poetic utterance, and testify to the truth. They “speak truth to power.”

When David greets his prophet again the next day, he doesn’t greet a court prophet, but God’s prophet: Thus says our God: “Are you the one to build me a house?” And David’s development plans just crumble before him.

When Nathan speaks, David hears powerful words that speak to his heart: the image of the pastoral tent, together with that of the shepherd, remind David not only on who he was when God first found him, a humble shepherd in his father’s fields, but of his calling – to shepherd God’s people. He is reminded of his years of success on the battle field, and then not so subtly, that this has been the result of divine favor. David is given no credit and assigned no merit in God’s recital David’s history.[3] Did God do all this so that God could have a house of cedar? No, God raised up David so that there would be a place where the people of Israel could have homes of their own and no longer be disturbed or oppressed.

While we all share a capacity for misunderstanding, God always sends those who can help us. Who is your Nathan? The one or ones who offer you not only support, encouragement, and affirmation, but honest reflection as to the wisdom or faithfulness of your decisions, new perspective on your actions, inspire new visions of what God requires of you?[4]

Now, the third thing and final thing I want to note in our scripture this morning is that there is more than misunderstanding and correction in the text. There is blessing. God blesses David’s house, his royal lineage, with God’s favor forever. 

There is a word play here: the word house can also mean temple or dynasty. David has wanted to build God a house. God replies: “It is I, Yahweh, who will build you a house.” This is more than David could ever have imagined, and it is entirely “the Lord’s doing” (Psalm 118: 23). And it is entirely unprecedented in Israel’s history for God to grant such unconditional favor to a person, rather than to the people as a whole. But this is what David gets. He had imagined a temple that could last for generations; an administrative center for religion. God has imagined new kind of people who will last forever, capable of worshiping God with justice, kindness and humility. And whenever they are lost, God will raise up a shepherd to lead them.

We heard in our gospel reading today that “when Jesus arrived in the city and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.” Here is God’s faithfulness: that when we are most in need, with a capacity for misunderstanding but capable, by degrees, of correction, we will discover blessings and mercies unsought and unimagined. Great is God’s faithfulness. On this we can depend, forever.


[1]  Remember the Sheryl Crowe song from a couple of years back? “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”

[2] Barbara Blodgett, Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving your Ministry. P. 143. For those who don’t know the book, chapter one distinguishes between praise and feedback, which would be helpful to those who wish to think on this some more.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.

[4] When I was in confirmation class as an eighth grade student, my pastor told me, in words reminiscent of Nathan’s, that if I loved God I could do what my heart desired and God would be pleased with me. Of course this led me to a lifetime of learning what it means to love, what I truly desire, and that God’s pleasure does not, in the end, depend on me.

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