Tenantless Temples, Pt. 2
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
Building a temple for God wasn’t a new idea.
David and Nathan didn’t come up with it on their own. That idea had been around for as long as humans had been wrestling with the divine. The ancient Near Eastern world which preceded and included these Israelites was full of kings building temples for gods.
In a series of ancient Sumerian stories, we can read about King Enmerkar and his adversary, the Lord of Aratta, as they built dueling temples to the goddess Inanna over a thousand years before the time of King David. These two kings were competing for the favor of the gods—trying to make a name for themselves.
In fact, their ancient account even includes a story of Enmerkar wanting to enslave the people of Aratta in order to build a temple for another god named Enki, who—depending on the translation—either possessed the power to unite humanity in one language or disrupt it into many different tongues.
If we’re familiar with the biblical book of Genesis, a story about a building project and a god who has the power to unite or disrupt the language of humanity might sound familiar. The Tower of Babel—yet another biblical building project undertaken by a people striving to earn favor and make a name for themselves.
The people that wrote and compiled the book of Genesis were familiar with the stories of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. They listened to them for generations as they were handed down by their neighbors and by the Assyrian and Babylonian kings that would exile and enslave the Israelites in their own building projects.
Ultimately, the biblical writers retold these stories. They rejected certain parts to be sure—but they nevertheless incorporated them and modified them to tell the story of their faith and their God. But even with their modifications, one thing that remained in these people was the notion that these building projects were of cosmic and eternal importance.
When David finally wakes up from resting in his palace and determines to build a temple for God, he’s joining a long line of monarchs and warriors before him.
One could even argue he is doing what scripture commands. The instructions of Deuteronomy 12 echo in the story of David’s building project. Verses 10 and 11 state:
“…you will cross the Jordan and settle in the land God is giving you as an inheritance, and God will give you rest from all your enemies around you so that you will live in safety. Then bring everything I command you to the place the Eternal will choose as a sanctuary.”
In 2nd Samuel 7, David has “settled in the land God gave as an inheritance” and is living in “safety…and rest from all his enemies.” Building a temple is not only the logical thing to do—it’s scriptural.
Isn’t this what a relationship with the divine requires?
Isn’t this what kings are supposed to do—what’s expected?
I mean, this is as natural as a cat killing a lizard.
From Enmerker to Babel to Deuteronomy, this is the way it’s always been done.
Even if you disagree with tradition, we’re told that building this temple is what’s on David’s heart. How are we supposed to argue with what’s on someone’s heart?
The prophet Nathan doesn’t. He sanctions the building campaign and tells David that God is with him.
There’s no way this could be wrong.
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