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What Does It Mean That King David’s Son Would Build a House for God? (2 Samuel 7)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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1Now when the king lived in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, 2the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” 3And Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.”

4But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan,5“Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in?6I 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 for my dwelling.7In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” ’8Now, 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, that you should be prince over my people Israel.9And 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.10And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11from 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.12When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.13He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.14I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men,15but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.16And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’”
—2 Samuel 7:1–17

A Place for God’s Presence

The narrator refers to David as “the king” in each of the first three verses, presenting David as securely enthroned as covenant king. He also introduces two key words found in the chapter. “Lived” recurs in verse 6 and as “dwell” in verses 2, 5, and as “sat” in verse 18. “House,” another key term (cf. comment on 2 Samuel 7:5), here refers to the palace Hiram’s workmen built for David and where David has taken up permanent residence (2 Sam. 5:11). Further, the narrator states that “the Lord had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies.” These words are repeated from Deuteronomy 12:10–11, which describes the arrangements for worshiping God after the Israelites are successfully settled in the land.

Although verse 2 is the first appearance of Nathan the prophet, he is not introduced, and we do not know where he came from nor how he became associated with David’s court. Though he acts as David’s adviser and confidant, Nathan is no lackey but a worthy successor to Samuel as court prophet (cf. comment on 1 Sam. 12:23). Later he delivers the Lord’s verdict on David’s sin (2 Samuel 12) and plays an influential role in ensuring that Solomon succeeds David (1 Kings 1). He will also write an account of events in David’s reign (1 Chron. 29:29).

David is concerned over the anomaly that exists in Jerusalem and draws Nathan’s attention to it. “Dwell . . . dwells” repeats the verb rendered “lived” in verse 2 Samuel 7:1; it is incongruous that David dwells “in a house of cedar” (cf. 2 Sam. 5:11), a well-constructed palace made from durable, high-quality timber, while the ark is housed “in a tent” (lit., “in the curtain”), referring to the fabric, probably of goatskin, enclosing the tent. To both Nathan and David it is self-evident that there could be no objection to glorifying God by building a temple for the ark, which symbolized his presence with his people. It was also a culturally accepted norm for a king to build a temple in honor of his patron deity, to whom he attributed his success.

Nathan encourages David to “go” (equivalent to “go ahead”) with his project, even though he has not explicitly stated what he plans to do. “Heart” covers the whole range of an individual’s mental faculties—thought, will, and emotion. While Nathan perhaps interprets “rest from all his surrounding enemies” (2 Sam. 7:1) as fulfillment of the condition in Deuteronomy 12, he justifies his endorsement of David’s proposal with his more general observation that “the Lord is with you” (cf. comments on 1 Sam. 10:7; 2 Sam. 7:9). The Lord is undoubtedly favorably disposed to David, but this does not warrant a blanket endorsement of all that David proposes. It is the Lord’s right to decide when and by whom a temple for him should be built. Nathan acts precipitately in expressing personal approval when he has in fact been consulted as “the prophet,” the Lord’s spokesman.

ESV Expository Commentary

A team of pastors and scholars walks through 6 historical books of the Old Testament, showing how they fit in with the rest of redemptive history and God’s plan for his people throughout the ages.

Who Should Build It?

That same night God loses no time in correcting Nathan’s mistaken conclusion. Though “the word of the Lord came” is found as early as Genesis 15:1 and occurs in connection with Samuel (1 Sam. 15:10), it will be used extensively in later prophetic literature for the communication of a divine message to a prophet. The formula draws attention to the authenticity of Nathan’s announcement and introduces the longest divine speech recorded since the days of Moses.

The prophet is instructed to “go” (probably involving physical movement to the palace; contrast 2 Sam. 7:3) to “my servant David,” an honorable title expressing divine recognition of David’s status (cf. Num. 12:7–8; Josh. 1:2). The messenger formula “Thus says the Lord” (cf. 1 Sam. 2:27) emphasizes that Nathan is now acting as the authorized mouthpiece of the Lord, not expressing his own views.

The Lord’s probing question “Would you build me a house to dwell in?” does not reject David but points out how unsuitable it would be for him to lead such a project (cf. the negative declaration in 1 Chron. 17:4). Elsewhere it is explained that David’s warfare, though legitimate, makes it incongruous for him to build the temple of the God of peace (1 Chron. 22:8; 28:3). The noun “house” (Hb. bayit) is a key word in the chapter, employed in three senses: as palace, temple, or dynasty. It is used once by the narrator, six times by God, and eight times by David.

The Lord reminds David that there has been no permanent structure of wood or stone for the ark since its construction. Instead God has been content with—indeed, had instituted—the existing provision of being “in a tent for my dwelling” (lit., “in a tent and in a tabernacle”), a temporary, portable structure in which he condescended to share the lifestyle of his people as they journeyed about. These arrangements are not to be altered without divine permission.

The Lord also points out that at no time did he “speak a word” of criticism or reproach to those he appointed as rulers of his people because they had not built a temple. He has been, and still is, satisfied with a tent. (Clearly the use of “temple” in 1 Samuel 1:9 for the Shiloh sanctuary does not imply it was a permanent edifice.) “Judges” here renders the Hebrew term “rod” or “tribe,” which may be understood by metonymy as “rulers who hold the staff,” though in 1 Chronicles 17:6 the usual word for “judges” is found. For the metaphor of “shepherd” applied to a ruler, cf. comment on 2 Samuel 5:2.

The Lord then sets out his relationship with David. “Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David” echoes the preamble of verse 5, as does the messenger formula “Thus says the Lord of hosts,” though the divine title used here emphasizes the reality that David’s Overlord is the one in control of all powers and resources in the universe (cf. 1 Sam. 1:3). “I am the one who took you” (AT) stresses the divine initiative (cf. 1 Sam. 16:1–13) by which God has selected him, taken him from tending sheep, and transformed him into a greater shepherd as “prince [Hb. nagid, “leader”; cf. comment on 1 Sam. 9:16] over my people Israel”—who are also accorded a key role (2 Sam. 7:7, 8, 10, 11) in this revelation.

The Lord reminds David that in his path from pasture to palace he has enjoyed God’s presence (cf. 1 Sam. 16:18) and has been granted victory over all of his enemies. The Lord’s past powerful provision forms a sure basis for confidence in his promises for the future. The Lord commits himself to enhancing David’s status further by granting him fame and renown (cf. 2 Sam. 7:18, 21), just as he had promised Abram that he would make his name great (Gen. 12:2).

The Lord will also bless his people as a whole by providing them with security so that they will not be harassed by “violent men” (lit., “sons of wrongdoing”; rendered “the wicked” in 2 Sam. 3:34). This is a reference to the surrounding nations, whom the Lord had used throughout the period of the judges to chastise his people (Judg. 2:14). While the “place” God would appoint for Israel might refer to the site on which the temple would be built, the following metaphor of “plant” makes it more probable that the term points to the Promised Land, which will now come completely under Israel’s control (1 Kings 4:21) and where they will be firmly fixed, like a tree with deep roots.

The Lord’s past powerful provision forms a sure basis for confidence in his promises for the future.

The focus reverts to David, who is promised divine maintenance of the rest he already enjoys (2 Sam. 7:1). Indeed this rest will be surpassed, for “the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house,” where “house” (cf. comment on 2 Sam. 7:5) refers to a dynasty, not a physical structure. The repeated divine name emphasizes the Lord’s personal initiative and guarantee that David’s sons will continue to rule the land after his death.

Three-Part Promise

The dynastic promise includes three aspects. First, David will be succeeded by his son, an arrangement described as being made by a “sure oath” (Ps. 132:11). Though after a long life David will “lie down with your fathers,” a metaphor for death, the Lord will “raise up” (“cause to stand”) David’s “offspring,” a term with considerable theological resonance (Gen. 3:15; 9:9; 17:9; 22:18). The clause “who shall come from your body” defines David’s successor as neither an adopted son nor a usurper but a direct descendant; this is a quotation of the promise to Abram (Gen. 15:4) that obviously points to Solomon. “I will establish” highlights the Lord’s making firm what he has put in place and is a key term repeated in 2 Samuel 7:13, 16 (cf. 1 Sam. 13:13; 20:31; 2 Sam. 5:12) to bring out the contrast with Saul’s aborted dynasty.

Second, “He shall build a house for my name” declares that David’s son, not David, will build the temple. “A house for my name” reflects “the place that the Lord will choose, to make his name dwell there” (Deut. 16:2), that is, he will personally own it and maintain his special presence with his people there. At the same time the Lord will “establish” (repeating the verb of 2 Sam. 7:12) the “throne of his kingdom forever” so that the dynasty will never be superseded. “Forever” is another key term in this chapter, occurring eight times in various forms (three times in divine speech and five times in David’s speech). While these expressions may simply indicate “throughout a designated period,” their repeated use signals “eternally.”

Third, the Lord sets out how he will deal with each future member of the dynasty: “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” “I” and “he” are explicitly expressed in the Hebrew in order to correlate the two sides of the covenant relationship, the Lord and the Davidic monarch—a relationship that achieves true reciprocal perfection only in the case of Christ, who as Messiah inherits David’s representative role (Heb. 1:5).

There is conditionality within the Davidic covenant, as obligations fall on the covenant king (cf. Ps. 132:11–12). However, the sin of David’s sons will not be permitted to thwart the divine purpose. “When [the king] commits iniquity” by deviating from the conduct expected of him, the Lord will correct the covenant king: “I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men.” Stripes result from being beaten with a rod in fatherly chastisement. Although “rod of men” might imply that the Lord will apply to the king such punishment as he ordinarily uses with mankind, the thought is more likely that the Lord will use other individuals to chasten his erring king. This is a description not of the king’s eternal destiny but of what will happen in the flow of human history: covenant disobedience will entail earthly deprivation of covenant blessings. David himself experiences such temporal penalties in the latter part of his reign.

The Steadfast Love of the Lord

“Steadfast love” (Hb. hesed; cf. 1 Sam. 15:6; 2 Sam. 2:5) is the commitment expected from a covenant partner, and the Lord promises that it “will not depart [sur]” from the king. The covenant promise will not be revoked “as I took [sur] it from Saul, whom I put away [sur] from before you” (cf. 1 Sam. 13:13–14). So, despite aberrations of individual successors to the throne, the Davidic dynasty will be maintained in perpetuity because God will not permit its role in his purposes to be subverted.

The basic terms of the covenant are repeated in conclusion: “Your house [dynasty] and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me.” To be “made sure” (cf. 1 Sam. 2:35; 25:28; Ps. 89:29) raises the promised realm above the vicissitudes of human affairs. In the Hebrew text, “before me” is actually “before you,” looking down to the generations that will follow David. “Before me” (found in the LXX) yields a more messianic sense in that the dynasty is perpetuated before God, who ensures the permanence of David’s line (cf. 2 Sam. 7:13; Ps. 89:28–29, 36–37). Ultimately this will be achieved only through the one who lives forever: Christ. For “established,” cf. comment on 2 Samuel 7:12–14 (cf. also Ps. 89:4, 37).

This article is written by John L. Mackay and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: 1 Samuel–2 Chronicles (Volume 3).

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