Tenantless Temples, Pt. 3
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
In the quiet of night, away from the triumph of the building campaign, Nathan receives a message from God—a message he’s to deliver to King David.
This message is not ambiguous.
“Are you the person who will build a house for Me to live in?”
This message thoroughly rejects the idea that God wants or needs David to build anything.
“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.”
This message is the longest message God has given since speaking to Moses.
“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?’”
The length and strength of this message seem to indicate that David’s building campaign struck a nerve.
“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 this message makes it clear that if anything needs to be built in this relationship, this God will build it.
“I will make a name for you…”
“I will select a place for My people…”
“I will give you rest…”
“I, the Eternal will build you a house.”
It’s as if this message is speaking to a larger and more pervasive issue than literal kings building literal temples—as if this is about something more universal—something with which we all wrestle.
Why do we build temples for God?
What really lies hidden beneath the surface of our righteous intentions? Why do we kill lizards and leave them on the back porch? Just like the cat, the first thing that comes to mind—is to earn favor. From a strictly transactional point of view, we build temples to please God. In the ancient Near East, you built your god or gods a house so they would like you and be kind to you—so they would bless you and your people with protection and provision. Simply put, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”—a fair exchange with the divine. After all, to be an effective king or queen, you needed to have the god or gods on your side—which points to another reason we build temples. Building temples gives us a tangible representation that the god or gods are on our side.
What better way to prove that the divine is with us than to build a temple and keep God there? As theologian Walter Brueggemann states, “The temple removes the danger and possibility that God might depart.” Once more, a free-range God is a dangerous God. There’s no telling what kind of trouble a wild and homeless God will stir up. But if we can contain the god—somehow put the divine in a box, in a room, behind a curtain, in a sanctuary, in a temple—now we have something we can control. That kind of velvet-ropes god validates our credibility. It gives us power. We must be chosen because we control the house where God lives. While we may wish that our reasons for temple-building ended there, the truth is our desire to control God points to a third, even more sinister motivation— manipulating and controlling people. If we can build the temple that contains the god, we will inevitably use the god we control to control people. We’ll build systems and dogma that control access, doctrines that reward, punish, and govern, and appointed experts to manage, manipulate and sustain the institution.
Earn the god’s favor.
Contain the god.
Control the people.
The good news is, King David and the prophet Nathan apparently got the message. Unlike Enmerkar, the people at Babel, and all the building campaigns before them, they did not build the temple. But the honeymoon didn’t last long. The temple-building tension remained within us. David’s son Solomon became king—and you better believe he got that temple built. In so doing, he even enslaved people to complete his building project. Can you feel that? It should sting a bit. The king of the Israelites, those who were delivered from Egypt—another empire that used slaves to build temples to the gods—enslaves people to build a temple for the slave-freeing God of Israel. Friends, that is tragic temple-building, and it should break our hearts. Yet, we tend to look past Solomon’s transgression and even hold him up as an example of wisdom. Both 1st Kings and 2nd Chronicles offer accounts of the dedication of Solomon’s temple and quote the king as praying, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? The cosmos itself cannot contain you, much less this Temple that I have built!” We could understand this to be a moment of clarity—albeit much too late as the temple has already been built by slaves. But I would submit to you another possibility. Rather than a moment of wisdom and clarity about the nature of God, perhaps Solomon had a moment of clarity about the nature of politics? Perhaps Solomon recognized that sometimes, controlling the people requires a little side-step—a humble brag—a subtle nod to humility and piety.
“The God who cannot be contained by the cosmos dwells in this puny house that I’ve built? Me—your humble king? I did that? Wow…that’s amazing!
Alright, everybody back to work!
And can y’all get someone over to my palace to clean—my porch is covered with dead lizards.”
Earn the god’s favor.
Contain the god.
Control the people.
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