Well, it’s a good thing that God told David not to build the temple before he got started, isn’t it? What would David have done if God made that decision known once construction began?
Both of the men in the story act like they see fit to act until God speaks. David decides to build a temple that’s a proper house for the Ark of the Covenant and God’s manifest presence that accompanies it. Nathan sees no problem with the idea and when consulted, says, “Sounds good. Knock yourself out.”
But God intervenes, telling Nathan to tell David he is not to build a temple, and also tells him why he’s saying that.
We don’t know David’s motives, beyond what he says to Nathan. It doesn’t seem right to him that he lives in a palace when the Ark is in a tent – either the exact same tent the Israelites built during their wandering in the wilderness, according to God’s instructions, or its replacement. What’s that say, David wonders, about what we think of our God when we let mortal me live in a great palace but limit the eternal God to a tent?
These motives seem good, and we don’t see anything to suggest otherwise. While God tells David not to build a temple, he doesn’t seem angry and in fact makes a promise to David that is at the root of our Christian understanding of who Jesus is.
I suspect that God appreciates David’s thought but knows that his desire to build a temple would have consequences David can’t foresee. There’s an obvious one, of course – whenever people would look at the temple that David had constructed, they would think as much or more of David as they did of God. “Wow, what a great king he must have been to be able to command the building of this great temple!”
Also, many people in the ancient world judged the power and importance of a god based on what kind of temple the worshippers used. A shabby little shack meant a god of little power and no influence. A magnificent building meant a god of great might and a people of great might as well. God lets David know he won’t play that game. He is the one true God and Lord, and he is such whether he lives in a splendid temple, a tent or a van down by the river (I may have added that last part). God will be God no matter where he chooses to be manifest or what kind of vessel he decides to use for that purpose.
And now we get to something that has to do with Advent, it seems. An early knock against the idea of Jesus being God’s Son was that the Almighty God would not enter creation and become part of it. God made the created world, and to suggest that any part of that created world, even a human being, was somehow divine as well was to blaspheme against God. Some people who dispute the Christian message today have the same idea.
During Jesus’ own life, people wouldn’t accept him as the Messiah because he was born in some pretty humble beginnings. His own hometown folk rejected him because they knew he was just plain ol’ Joe and Mary’s boy and he didn’t have any call to be putting on airs about fulfilling prophecies.
God, it seems to me, answers those objections with words not too far off from what he told David. “I’ll pick my own dwelling place, thank you, and I’ll pick it for my reasons which you may or more likely may not understand.”
In fact, God tells David, I will build a house for you, one that lasts through eternity. Jesus, of David’s house or family, will be the king who restores God’s chosen people and in addition restores all of creation to the relationship God designed it for. In part, this is a promise made to David because of his desire to serve God. But it’s also God reminding David who did the creating and who was created, and which of those will define the relationship and the way things are. You won’t define me, he says, but I will define you and I have a purpose in mind beyond what you can imagine.
That purpose eventually came into its own in a life that started in a manger, ended on a cross and was renewed in a tomb. A dwelling place far more humble than David imagined, but with a purpose greater than he could have ever dreamed.