As I write, the U.S. is in a kind of suspended animation with respect to the outcome of the November 3 presidential election – on top of a worldwide pandemic that has not yet run its course; on top of the myriad disruptions stemming from the pandemic; on top of the summer of protest (and more) prompted by the death of a Minneapolis man under the knee of a police officer; on top of countless other stresses too small to make the news.
Across the span of recorded history, the Year of Our Lord 2020 will not make the list of Top Ten Worst Years Ever. Still, 2020 has been stressful and exhausting. God gives us meaningful work, yes, but God did not design us for unremitting stress. All God’s earthly creatures, at least – including the family of the redeemed – need rest. In such a time as this, this conversational-rehearsal-cum-promise to David permits us to embrace hope also.
The (half)-pericope in a nutshell: David asked Nathan the prophet, “Why should I live in a house (palace) of cedar, while Yahweh still lives in a tent? I’ll build him a house (temple).” Through Nathan, God responded, “Hold on! Have I ever asked you – or Israel’s leaders who came before you – to build me a house? I’ve lived in a tent (the Tabernacle of Moses) since I brought Israel up from Egypt. You aren’t building me a house (temple). Au contraire, I’m making you a house (dynasty), and I will establish it forever.”
Rest . . . Rest. The narrative statement of verse 1, Yahweh “had given [David] rest from all his enemies around him,” is the first element of an inclusio (a literary “frame”). The second element is God’s promise of verse 11, “I will give you rest from all your enemies.” This inclusio/framing introduces and highlights a (the?) central theme of the reading.
God’s words to David highlight and extend this theme in the middle of our (half)-pericope. God’s actions, past, present, and future, were to give and protect “a place” for Israel whom God had and would “plant” there, “so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more” (v. 10). Israel would rest.
The larger view. God appointed humans for supervisory care and support of the rest of God’s earthly creation, highlighted in God’s instruction “to work” (“till,” NRSV) and “to keep/protect” the Garden (Gen. 2:15). The familiar pattern was six days of work and one day of rest (Gen. 2:2-3; Exod. 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12-15). But the Torah also instructs further times and seasons of rest: apparently, a Sabbath at each New Moon (Amos 8:5); one or two days of Sabbath in each of the major festivals – Pesach/Passover, Shavuot/Pentecost, and Succot/Booths, and the Day of Atonement.
The Sabbatical Year after six years of the normal work of seedtime and harvest, and the fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee, also reflect the importance God attaches to rest as an important part of the rhythms of creation. Ethical and productive work is good; however, sacrificing everything upon the altar of work subverts God’s intentions in and for divine-human and human-to-human relationships. Rest also is an essential element of the rhythms of a healthy life, a vital contribution to human flourishing (shalom).
The Pentateuchal legislation presents much more of this, God’s intended pattern for ancient Israel in their new home in the Canaanite Highlands to which Joshua would bring them. Tribal allotments were to be apportioned by clans and families so that each could live in shalom, in work and rest, in peace and fulfillment – in all that could be experienced of human flourishing in that time, that place, and that culture. Israel’s historians remembered a realization of this intention in the expression from Solomon’s prosperous reign, “Judah and Israel dwelt in security, each [family] under its own vine and its own fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25 [Heb., 5:5]). Micah and Zechariah (essentially spanning Israel’s classical prophetic tradition) made this a feature of the coming eschatological age (Micah 4:4; Zech. 3:10). The New Testament writer to the Hebrews devotes most of chapter 4 to a theology of rest, including Sabbath rest in several of its aspects. We who are David’s “spiritual” kin also share in God’s promise of and provision for rest.
A “covenant text,” and a caveat. This reading also is about covenant. Second Samuel 7:1-17 (followed by David’s prayer of grateful response, vv. 18-29) is rightly considered a key text establishing what Protestant theology often calls the “Davidic Covenant.” Protestant proponents of covenant theology usually consider the “Davidic Covenant,” along with the “Abrahamic Covenant” (Gen., esp. chs. 15, 17) and the “Mosaic Covenant” (esp. Exod. and Deut.), as the “big three” covenants preceding and leading up to the “New Covenant,” in and through Jesus, introduced in the “New Testament/New Covenant.”
This is not the place for extensive discussion, but we should note that, important as it is, “covenant” is not the culmination of all biblical values. That place belongs to God’s nature and character denoted in the Hebrew phrase hesed ve-emet, which we should translate “faithful (‘unfailingly reliable’) lovingkindness” (never as “covenant loyalty,” a cheapening and a travesty). God’s faithful lovingkindness, kinship-based and kinship-guaranteed, rooted in God’s divine parenthood and Jesus’ joyous redemption of us into eternal daughter- and son-ship as his younger sisters and brothers – that is the foundation and apex of biblical values, and of our value to God in biblical terms. All the language here of God’s past acts on behalf of, and future promises to, David is kinship language before it is covenant language. Even in its character as covenant language, it originates from and is rooted in the kinship language of hesed.
Why this is an Advent text. With the benefit of historical and theological hindsight, we are justified in taking verse sixteen as an eschatological “coda” to our First Reading. Brilliant as it was, Solomon’s reign could not last “forever.” Because of his apostasy in favor of the “gods” of his pagan wives, its luster faded even before his death (1 Kings 11:1-10). In the geopolitics of first-millennium western Asia, David’s temporal dynasty ended in the Babylonian captivity of Jehoiakin, the last scion of David recognized as the legitimate king of Judah (2 Kings 25:27-30; Matt. 1:12, 17). Something – or Someone – more was needed, and of course that is why this is an Advent text. What God had begun in and through David, God would bring to glorious eternal completion in and through David’s greater Son, Jeshua ha-Mashiach, Jesus the Messiah.