2 Samuel 7:1-17
Recently I got a large envelope in the mail from Phillips Seminary, where I will be starting my Doctor of Ministry program this month. It contained the student handbook and a whole bunch of forms I need to sign and send back. There’s one that says, yes, I received the handbook. There’s one giving my permission to put my photo in their publicity materials if they want to. There’s a couple other ones I don’t remember right at this moment.
And then there’s a community covenant. It doesn’t contain anything that I object to at all, even though there’s actually room at the end for someone to express “qualifications” to their signature if they feel the need. Mostly it’s things like not plagiarizing, treating one another with respect, not sexually harassing people…common sense for any decent person, I’d think. We have to sign it and send it back.
By signing the covenant, I am stating that I agree to a set of behavioral expectations during my time studying at Phillips. I’m making a promise that I will meet those expectations.
That’s what a covenant is, you know…it’s a promise.
Most of the time we think of “covenant” as a positive thing, but not always. A case involving so-called “restrictive covenants” in home sales went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1947. (Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1, 1948). These covenants, which had to be agreed to before a person could actually buy the house to which they were attached, required the buyer to promise not to sell the home to a black or Asian person down the road. Actually some of them, if I remember correctly since it’s been awhile since I read the ruling, didn’t just apply to the current buyer, but constrained everybody who might ever own and seek to sell the house.
The Court ruled that these covenants could not be enforced. It wasn’t a promise anyone should have had to make, and it’s not a promise anyone has to keep. That wasn’t a good, fair, or just covenant, and it’s well that the Court ruled against it.
But most of the time in the Bible, when we hear about a covenant between God and a person or group of people, it’s a positive thing. This summer we’re going to spend some time thinking about the concept of covenant in the Bible and in Christian theology. We will look at four major covenants found in the Old Testament, and then we’ll consider the implications of the most important one on how we understand our faith and our Lord, Jesus Christ.
We’ll start a bit out of order, with the last of the four to show up in the Bible, the Davidic Covenant. It also has some implications for our faith, as it turns out.
We just heard the reading from 2 Samuel where that covenant is found. David has managed to solidify his position as king of Israel. He has established Jerusalem as his capital city, and he has moved the Ark, the visible sign of God’s presence, into the city. He has built his palace and is settled comfortably in it.
The standard next step would be to build a temple to the God who put him on that throne. So David speaks to his court prophet, Nathan, and tells him what he wants to do. Nathan, speaking on behalf of God, gives his blessing; of course this would be the right time to build God a house.
But Nathan, it turns out, spoke too soon.
That night God spoke to Nathan and said no, he did not want David to build him a house. God’s Presence, God’s Name, had been dwelling among the people in a tent and a tabernacle since they left Egypt, and God was happy with that arrangement. Have I ever given anyone reason to think I wanted a fancy house to live in? God asked Nathan.
Then God makes a promise to David, containing a masterful play on the word “house.”
If you have more than a nodding acquaintaince with English history, you know that over the hundreds of years that country has been in existence, a number of families have produced its kings. One of the most famous of these families, of course, are the Tudors. The first Tudor king of England was Henry VII; this Welshman put a stop to the Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York by becoming king himself. The last Tudor king was Elizabeth I, who never married and never had any children.
You just heard the other use of the word “house.” A house can be a building in which someone lives, but the word is also used to refer to a dynasty, a series of rulers in a country that all come from the same family, with the crown passed down most generally (although not always) from father to son.
So God tells David not to build him a house in the first sense of the word; God doesn’t, at this point in time, feel the need for that. There isn’t any real reason given here for why God doesn’t want David to build him a house; the Chroniclers had a bit more to say about it when they report the building of the Temple by David’s son. In 1 Chronicles 22:8 and 28:3, we’re told that God chose not to allow David to build his house because David was a warrior and had shed blood.
Instead, God makes a promise to David that uses the other sense of the word “house.” David can’t build God a house made of cedar, but God will build David a house made of sons. And, God says, this house will stand forever—in other words, a descendant of David will always rule from Jerusalem.
Immediately you can see a problem with this, can’t you?
There was indeed a king of David’s line on the throne from his son Solomon through Zedekiah, who was deposed and exiled by the armies of the Babylonian Empire in 587 bce. From then on, there has not been a Davidic king ruling from Jerusalem.
So what do we do with this promise? Is God’s covenant with David now null and void?
Over the course of this summer we are going to learn quite a bit about how God acts when God has made a covenant with someone. One of the things we will see, over and over, is that God is absolutely faithful to these covenants. That means that, as the Jewish people and later the Christian people thought about what this covenant meant in light of the events of 587, and given God’s utter fidelity to that covenant, something very important emerged.
The grossly oversimplified version of what they came up with is this: God does not break the promises—the covenants—God makes. If God promised that a king of David’s line would rule in Jerusalem forever, then a king of David’s line will rule in Jerusalem forever. Current circumstances—the time from 587 until a new king arrives—are simply an interruption, but God will one day restore the kingdom and put a new king from David’s line on the throne in Jerusalem, and that king will reign forever. That king, the one who is to come, became known in Hebrew as moshiach, or anointed one—which in Greek is christos, in English (derived directly from Hebrew with a few minor changes) messiah.
Do you know what that is? It’s hope. It’s the certain expectation that, even though things are not as they should be right now, God’s covenant still stands, and will be fulfilled.
We Christians believe that fulfillment has begun with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and while we know it’s not yet completed, we expect that it will be one day. And so, with many other Christians around the world, we express our certain hope in God’s covenant faithfulness:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.