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 forever. 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 forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David. —2 Samuel 7:1-17
We often forget how full of surprises God can be. Even those of us who spend a great deal of time studying the Bible and theology can forget that, time and time again, God reveals himself to his people in amazing and mystifying ways: a bush that is burning and yet not consumed by the flames; a whisper, barely audible above windstorms, wildfires, and earthquakes; a defenseless child, lying in a feeding trough. I spend most of my time reading books and writing papers that try to pin down and systematize this mysterious, infuriating God. However, what lies at the end of most of these endeavors is, I find, only more confusion. More uncertainty. Our knowledge of God is always incomplete. We can know God, and things about God, but never fully. He is always evading our grasp. And this is something to be thankful for, because mystery is part of what makes God who he is. Many of us fight against this, consciously or otherwise, by constructing theological systems to capture the Mystery. But we often forget that before we dissect something, we have to kill it.
Even the greatest among us can slip into the illusion that we have him all figured out, that our instincts are always good. This can happen in one’s intellectual life, certainly, but it can also happen in one’s prayer life. Those who spend the most time in prayer, Scripture reading, or silent meditation are not immune from the temptation to confuse their own voices with God’s voice. (In fact, they may be some of the most susceptible to it.) Even the wisest among us can believe the lie that if we are trying to walk closely with God, his will will always be in accord with our own.
But we know this isn’t true. Because we are human beings, we never have the whole picture. We don’t know everything, and often we don’t even know ourselves all that well. Something we forget all too easily is how placed we are. Our basic beliefs and assumptions are inextricably tied to our settings in time and space—and every culture, invariably, has blind spots. There are so many lies we take for granted because they’ve been beaten into our heads, because they are stitched into the fabric of our society. And even when we learn the truth it is all too easy to fall back into old habits. We are good enough at deception to deceive ourselves, over and over and over again.
This might be what happened to David in 2 Samuel 7. He was at home, surrounded by his people and enjoying rest from war. Before, he had been forced to rely upon God to get him through battle after battle, but now he was able to relax. He could, perhaps, let down his guard a bit. And in his newfound comfort, it seems that David reverted to some erroneous assumptions about God that were common in his day.
Most ancient people believed that deities were confined to geographical locations, and that they needed places to “live.” God had long ago subverted that expectation, crossing borders without fear to lead Abraham to a land that he had prepared for him. That God needed an elaborate temple to solidify his reputation was a ridiculous notion, because “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Ps. 24:1). But this is exactly what we see David saying in our passage: “It’s just not right for me to live in this big house while God’s in a tent in the backyard. What will the other kids think? We need to make sure they know how great he is.”
David had forgotten so much of what God had revealed to him and his people. He went back to those old lies, the mistaken assumptions of his cultural moment. He forgot that, from the very beginning, God was more than happy to live and move among his people. He forgot that God desired to live in a constant, intimate relationship with his creation. And he forgot that the only reason he had a land to call his own and a house made of Lebanon cedar trees is because God, a long time ago, came to a pagan nomad wandering around Ur of the Chaldees and said, “Abraham, I’m building you a house. Let’s go home.”
If this spiritual amnesia can happen to the “man after God’s own heart,” then it can certainly happen to us. So what are we forgetting? What cultural lies are so ingrained in our minds that we slip back into them over and over again, regardless of how many times God corrects us? How are we, today, making God in our image? I would challenge you not to jump to those people, the token group that in your mind is compromising the faith. I’m not talking about fundamentalists or liberals or Roman Catholics—or any group, for that matter. I’m talking to you. What lies are you believing? Do you think the American Dream will make you happy? Or that the title of “Reverend” gives you the corner on God? Or that it’s okay for you to ignore that person on the street who just asked you for spare change?
Let’s search our hearts today. Let’s ask God to unmask the lies we’ve fallen prey to. And let’s prepare to be surprised, as I’m sure David was when he unveiled the blueprints for the temple and was met with these astonishing words: “I don’t need you to build me anything. In fact, I’m going to build you a house—and it will stand forever.”