Introduction – current debate about inheritance. Inheritance as a right which is not the interest of the state vs. inheritance as a way of perpetuating divisions and increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Not the place to debate that, but it does raise a question about part of what it means to be human. The desire to make our mark, to leave a legacy, to be – in some way – significant.
The biblical story of David is one that has resonances for this question and the chapter we’ve heard this morning more than most. One commentator has gone as far as to say this is the most significant chapter in the whole of the OT for biblical faith
As we come to 2 Samuel 7, David is riding the crest of the wave. He’s got rid of his enemies. His opponents are either dead or silent. His approval ratings are sky high. At this moment David can do pretty much whatever he wants. The people trust him enough that if he issued a decree, an edict, or declared some new set of laws, they would assume that it was for their good and so they’d be only too happy to follow what the king said.
David has not yet discovered that all this can go to his head. That will come soon enough in the upcoming adultery and murder associated with his desire for Bathsheba. Just for now, though, the world is David’s oyster and he is starting to think that he could do no wrong, not even in God’s sight. David has a spiritual adviser – Nathan, the prophet. Nathan believes in David too and so when David proposes that he builds God a house at least as grand as the cedar-panelled palace he was occupying as Israel’s king, Nathan didn’t even have to pray about it before giving David the thumbs-up. “Even God is your oyster, King David,” Nathan as much as said. “If you do it, God approves.” It’s a dangerous view. The divine right of kings is but a step away from tyranny.
But you have to feel a twinge of understanding for Nathan, Like most spiritual advisers has probably spent his life being asked to pray to God FOR something that people needed. “Pray for my marriage…Pray for my wayward child… Pray that I can turn my business around…Pray with me for those tests that are due back on Monday…” Just once in a while you long for someone to come to you with something they want to give back, someone who wants to do something for God. What’s more, it’s David, the man God has chosen. This is the easiest piece of advice Nathan has ever given. No need to pray. No need to mediate on this or sleep on it or check with God on it. “Go ahead, David. The Lord is with you.”
Many of us make these sorts of bargains with God. Assuming we have those moments when our need for God to do stuff for us is overtaken by a desire to give something back to God, we seem most content to do that on our terms, rather than on God’s. Perhaps it’s one of those childish bargains we sometimes make in prayer, “Lord, if you do this, then I’ll go to church much more regularly…if you answer this prayer, then I’ll give you a bit more of my time, my talent, my money.” We all bargain with God like this from time to time. David’s desire to build a temple isn’t quite a bargain, but it is like those bargain prayers, where we give to God the thing we think God wants, or are prepared to offer God. It’s a long way from “Not my will but yours…” When you or I pray, or wonder what we can do for God, it’s all too easy to make it all about us, always.
But, the whole of the narrative of books of Ruth, Samuel and Kings are shaped towards David and God’s work in David, so maybe it’s not difficult to understand why David ends up thinking he knows what he needs to do for God. The Lord is with David.
And that is precisely why the Lord has to put the brakes on here. David was about take a path that may have looked as innocent as could – after all, God should have a new temple, just as the people who built this church thought that it might be good for God and good for their own approval ratings to build this church. But such a course of action could well have led him to the kind of arrogant self-sufficiency that could be his undoing. So God has to get into Nathan’s face with a long oracle. It’s worth noting that this really is the first moment in biblical history when a prophet speaks God’s word to a king. It’s a seminal moment.
There really is no missing the message here: it’s not about David and what he can do for God. This is about God and what God alone can do for David. That’s why God is the subject of no less than 23 active verbs the verses that follow. What David is all about is not what he can do for God but what God has done and will do through David but for God’s glory, not David’s.
If only David had stopped and thought. Assuming, albeit with some justification that it was wrong to live in a palace while God lived in a tent, David assumes that God needs a palace to live rather than it being David who could do without one! So often our own praying is like this: we want God to fit into our world rather than allowing God’s world to shape our own.
And the irony is that, with the benefit of hindsight, what God goes on to promise David is truly spectacular, far more than a cedar-panelled palace. It is so spectacular that David is humbled (just beyond our reading we read in verse 18 that David’s response to Nathan’s message was to go and sit before the Lord). No more strutting around. No more standing up to tell God what was what and what he was going to do for God. It’s time to sit and be quiet and humbly receive what God alone can give.
David may be the man after God’s own heart but as it turns out, he most certainly cannot do whatever it is he wants. Every now and then need all of us need to be reminded – even the holiest – that God is in charge and that his ways are not necessarily our ways.
David was upset that God was still living in that sorry old tent same as had been the case during all those wilderness years of wandering when also the people of God were in tents. But now that David and the others in Jerusalem were doing better and had nice roofs over their heads, David assumed God would want and need the same thing. Divine dignity demanded it. A humble tent could never do for the great God of the universe! But as it turned out, God was more interested in building David a house than having it be the other way around. What God is building is the House of David, not a house of worship. And maybe the reason was because in the divine plan, it would be the house and line of David that would one day bring to this world Jesus, the Son of David and the Son of God, the Saviour.
And this reversal of expectation, this moment of revelation for David that it is God who wants to do something extraordinary for David and through David, bring us to a moment of realisation as well. When we aspire (and Philip will be preaching in more depth about aspiration in a couple of weeks’ time), when we think about the mark we make, the legacy we leave, the inheritance we bequeath to those around us, we do well to remember that what God began in the House of David, he continued through the Son of David, Jesus, who in turn continues God’s work through his new house, the People of God, the Church. While we may admire the generosity of those who built this church, the example of those whose names adorn these signboards indicating pious generosity to God and the poor over the centuries (even though they are, of course, self-aggrandizing in their way), what we do best to remember is that the God who began his work in the House of David, now continues that work in and through us. The greatest legacy we can leave is to pass on the message of the work of God. It is God’s inheritance that is to be our aspiration; the fabric of the world (such as the Temple which David’s son Solomon eventually built) is long-gone. What matters is what part of God’s inheritance we leave through us.
And here’s a final thought, on the inheritance question. God didn’t mind living in a tent. As the Apostle John will one day reveal to the world, when the time had fully come, the Word would become flesh and (as the Greek puts it) “pitch his tent” among his people yet again. What we truly leave to those around us is what is under our skin, not what we build in palaces, empires or even modest savings. It is our humanity that Jesus honours by his presence, it is through that humanity that he would finally bring the salvation of all. That salvation is our inheritance and what, in our own flesh, we bequeath to those who follow.