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Tenantless Temples, Pt. 1

Before long, King David made himself at home, and God gave him peace from all his enemies.

Then one day, the king said to Nathan the prophet, “Look at this: Here I am, comfortable in a luxurious house of cedar, and the Chest of God sits in a plain tent.”

Nathan told the king, “Whatever is on your heart, go and do it. God is with you.” But that same night, God spoke to Nathan saying,

“Go and tell my servant David this message is from the Eternal: Are you the person who will build a house for Me to live in? I have not lived in a house since I brought My people Israel up from Egypt but have moved around all this time with nothing but a tent. And in all my travels with Israel, did I ever say to any of the leaders who shepherded Israel, ‘Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?’

I took you from the pasture, tagging along after sheep, and made you prince over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you journeyed and have given you victory over your enemies; and I will make you highly respected, with a name as great as any who live on earth.

And I will select a place for My people Israel and plant them firmly in that place, a land they can call their own, a land of peace. Evildoers will not bother them anymore as they did during the days when I set judges over my people Israel. Finally, I will give you rest from fighting your enemies.

More importantly, I, the Eternal will build you a house."

2 Samuel 1:11


There is a wise teacher in my life who occasionally shares bits of wisdom by telling stories about the family pets. These pets include a white mutt dog—aptly named “White Dog” and an assortment of illogical cats who are almost always doing something ridiculous. While the stories my teacher tells about these family pets always make me laugh, they’re also clearly intended to be an invitation to consider my own illogical and ridiculous behavior. Their stories—with a few tweaks here and there—sound an awful lot like my stories. For instance, one of the cats dedicated itself to bringing a dead lizard to the back porch at least once a week. In and of itself, a cat killing a lizard is not illogical or ridiculous. Cats are carnivores after all, and if we give them the opportunity to get outside and hunt, they’re going to make some kills. What was weird about this lizard hunt was that the cat wouldn’t bring the lizards to the porch to eat or enjoy. Instead, the cat brought the lizards to the porch to present them, with great pride, to my teacher. This cat seemed to think that she needed to earn favor or pay homage in some way—and she did that by killing a lizard, bringing it to the back porch, and laying it on the doormat as an offering. This happened over and over again—as if it were something that was required—or something my teacher expected or wanted—at the very least, something he would appreciate. As you can probably imagine, my teacher did not appreciate it. It was not what he wanted at all. The inevitable and undesirable conclusion of this dutiful exchange each week was that he had to clean up and dispose of a dead lizard that he never wanted in the first place—not to mention the impact this ritual had on the lizards.

Lizards were losing their lives in this unnecessary and unwanted ritual.

While this may all be the circle of life—natural on the level of cats and lizards, I’m not so sure this behavior is natural when I’m the one laying dead lizards on doormats. The thing is, I can see myself in this cat. I’ve proudly delivered unrequested and unwanted gifts. I may have occasionally determined that a relationship needed something from me that it did not need at all. I’m sure that my wife, my kids, and my family could offer a long list of the times when I have completely misunderstood what our relationships needed—completely missed the mark and proudly presented them with dead lizards—gifts that they neither expected nor wanted. And it’s not just the people in my life. The story we find in the 7th Chapter of 2nd Samuel—of King David and the prophet Nathan entering into a temple-building project—reminds me that I am fully capable of offering dead lizards in my relationship with God, too. As this scene in King David’s story opens up, we’re told that, for the first time in a long time, all is quiet on the western front. The battles, for the moment, are over, and King David and the Israelites are experiencing a time of peace and rest. In fact, they‘ve enjoyed so much downtime, that David has “a luxurious house of cedar” as his home. A quick sidenote for my allergy-prone sisters and brothers, a house built of cedar was simply a sign of ancient Near-Eastern luxury. What may sound like a Benadryl nightmare to us is actually just an ancient description of a really nice house. So, as David rests in his luxurious cedar palace, it occurs to him that he is enjoying this nice, seemingly permanent dwelling while the “Chest of God”—or the Ark of the Covenant—lives in a tent. David determines that he needs to do something about that inequity and summons the prophet Nathan to seek approval to build a temple for God. You know, it’s very easy to read through a sentence or two in a story like this and overlook the amount of time that’s passing. In the opening sentences of this story, enough time has passed for the Israelites to experience so much peace and downtime that they’ve built a luxurious palace for their king. That’s not an overnight endeavor. Building a palace takes time. If we read between the lines of this story, we notice that it’s not until David is resting comfortably in his own palace that it occurs to him that the Ark of the Covenant is in a tent. The Ark has always been in that tent. It was in the tent during the entire construction of David’s palace. It’s only after David has completed and moved-in to his luxurious house that he turns his attention to the difference between his dwelling place and the dwelling place of the Ark of the Covenant. And, as Dr. Victor Hamilton, professor emeritus of the Hebrew Bible at Asbury Theological Seminary, writes, even then David determines the only way to level the playing field is to build a palace for God. But David actually “has two choices if he’s interested in equalization. Since David lives in a house and the ark is in a tent, David can put his house on the market and move into a tent. But kings, upwardly mobile persons that they are, never downsize.” In other words, why should David follow God and live in a tent, when he can make God follow him and live in a palace of cedar? But even if we move past David overlooking the option he has to downgrade, it’s still worth noting that when David summons the prophet Nathan for approval of his temple-building project—he gets it. Nathan’s all in. He tells David that God is with him and he should do whatever’s on his heart. That may seem like a surprising endorsement, but we all know that preachers tend to get excited about church construction—especially when the richest person in town offers to bankroll the project. As Professor Hamilton points out, Nathan was not the first nor will he be the last “to assume that how and what they feel and think is what God feels and thinks.”

The truth is, building a temple for God wasn’t even a new idea.


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