PROPOSAL TO BUILD A TEMPLE.
2 Samuel 7:1-29.
THE spirit of David was essentially active and fond of work. He was one of those who are ever pressing on, not content to keep things as they are, moving personally towards improvement, and urging others to do the same. Even in Eastern countries, with their proverbial stillness and conservatism, such men are sometimes found, but they are far more common elsewhere. Great undertakings do not frighten them; they have spirit enough for a lifetime of effort, they never seem weary of pushing on. When they look on the disorders of the world they are not content with the languid utterance, "Something must be done;" they consider what it is possible for them to do, and gird themselves to the doing of it.
For some time David seems to have found ample scope for his active energies in subduing the Philistines and other hostile tribes that were yet mingled with the Israelites, and that had long given them much annoyance. His friendship with Hiram of Tyre probably gave a new impulse to his mind, and led him to project many improvements in Jerusalem and elsewhere. When all his enemies were quieted, and he sat in his house, he began to consider to what work of internal improvement he would now give his attention. Having recently removed the Ark, and placed it in a tabernacle on Mount Zion, constructed probably in accordance with the instructions given to Moses in the wilderness, he did not at first contemplate the erection of any other kind of building for the service of God. It was while he sat in his new and elegant house that the idea came into his mind that it was not seemly that he should be lodged in so substantial a home, while the Ark of God dwelt between curtains. Curtains might have been suitable, nay, necessary, in the wilderness, where the Ark bad constantly to be moved about; and even in the land of Israel, while the nation was comparatively unsettled, curtains might still have been best; but now that a permanent resting-place had been found for the Ark, was it right that there should be such a contrast between the dwelling-place of David and the dwelling-place of God? It was the very argument that was afterwards used by Haggai and Zechariah after the return from captivity, to rouse the languid zeal of their countrymen for the re-erection of the house of God. "Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses and this house lie waste?"
A generous heart, even though it be a godless one, is uncomfortable when surrounded by elegance and luxury, while starvation and misery prevail in its neighbourhood. We see in our day the working of this feeling in those cases, unhappily too few, where men and women born to gold and grandeur feel wretched unless they are doing something to equalize the conditions of life by helping those who are born to rags and wretchedness. To the feelings of the godly a disreputable place of worship, contrasting meanly with the taste and elegance of the hall, or even the villa, is a pain and a reproach. There is not much need at the present day for urging the unseemliness of such a contrast, for the tendency of our time is toward handsome church buildings, and in many cases towards extravagance in the way of embellishment. What we have more need to look at is the disproportion of the sums paid by rich men, and even by men who can hardly be called rich, in gratifying their own tastes and in extending the kingdom of Christ. We are far from blaming those who, having great wealth, spend large sums from year to year on yachts, on equipages, on picture galleries, on jewelery and costly furnishings. Wealth which remunerates honest and wholesome labour is not all selfishly thrown away. But it is somewhat strange that we hear so seldom of rich Christian men devoting their superfluous wealth to maintaining a mission station with a whole staff of labourers, or to the rearing of colleges, or hospitals, or Christian institutions, which might provide on a large scale for Christian activity in ways that might be wonderfully useful. It is in this direction that there is most need to press the example of David. When shall this new enlargement of Christian activity take place? Or when shall men learn that the pleasure of spreading the blessings of the Gospel by the equipment and maintenance of a foreign missionary or mission station far exceeds anything to be derived from refinements and luxuries of which they themselves are the object and the center?
When the thought of building a temple occurred to David, he conferred on the subject with the prophet Nathan. The Scripture narrative is so brief that it gives us no information about Nathan, except in connection with two or three events in which he had a share. Apparently he was a prophet of Jerusalem, on intimate terms with David, and perhaps attached to his court. When first consulted on the subject by the king, he gave him a most encouraging answer, but without having taken any special steps to ascertain the mind of God. He presumed that as the undertaking was itself so good, and as David generally was so manifestly under Divine guidance, nothing was to be said but that he should go on. "Nathan said to the king, Go, do all that is in thine heart, for the Lord is with thee." That same night, however, a message came to Nathan that gave a new complexion to the proposal. He was instructed to remind David, first, that God had never complained of His tabernacle-dwelling from the day when He brought up the children of Israel to that hour, and had never given a hint that He desired a house of cedar. Further, he was commissioned to convey to David the assurance of God's continued interest and favour towards him - of that interest which began by taking him from the sheepfold to make him king over Israel, and which had been shown continuously in the success which had been given him in all his enterprises, and the great name he had acquired, entitling him to rank with the great men of the earth. Towards the nation of Israel, too, God was actuated by the same feeling of affectionate interest; they would be planted, set firm in a place of their own, delivered from the thralldom of enemies, and allowed to prosper and expand in peace and comfort. Still further - and this was a very special blessing - Nathan was to inform David that, unlike Saul, he was not to be the only one of his race to occupy the throne; his son would reign after he was gathered to his fathers, the kingdom would be established in his hands, and the throne of his kingdom would be established for ever. To this favoured son of his would be entrusted the honour of building the temple, God would be his Father, and he would be God's son. If he should fall into sin, he would be chastised for his sin, but not destroyed. The Divine mercy would not depart from him as it had departed from Saul. The kernel of the message was in these gracious concluding words - "Thine house and thy kingdom shall be established forever before thee; thy throne shall be established forever."
Here, certainly, was a very remarkable message, containing both elements of refusal and elements of encouragement. The proposal which David had made to build a temple was declined. The time for a change, though drawing near, had not yet arrived. The curtain- canopied tabernacle had been designed by God to wean His people from those sensuous ideas of worship to which the magnificent temples of Egypt had accustomed them, and to give them the true idea of a spiritual service, though not without the visible emblem of a present God. The time had not yet arrived for changing this simple arrangement. God could impart His blessing in the humble tent as well as in the stately temple. As long as it was God's pleasure to dwell in the tabernacle, so long might David expect that His grace would be imparted there. So we may say, that so long as it is manifestly God's pleasure that a body of His worshippers shall occupy a humble tabernacle, so long may they expect that He will shine forth there, imparting that fullness of grace and blessing which is the true and only glory of any place of worship.
But the message through Nathan contained also elements of encouragement, chiefly with reference to David's offspring, and to the stability and permanence of his throne. To appreciate the value of this promise for the future, we must bear in mind the great insecurity of new dynasties in Eastern countries, and the fearful tragedies that were often perpetrated to get rid of the old king's family, and prepare the way for some ambitious and unscrupulous usurper.
We hardly need to recall the tragic end of Saul, the base murder of Ishbosheth, or the painful deaths of Asahel and Abner. We have but to think of what happened in the sister kingdom of the ten tribes, from the death of the son of its first king, Jeroboam, on to its final extinction. What an awful record the history of that kingdom presents of conspiracies, murders, and massacres! How miserable a distinction it was to be of the seed royal in those days! It only made one the more conspicuous a mark for the poisoned cup or the assassin's dagger. It associated with the highest families of the realm horrors and butcheries of which the poorest had no cause even to dream. Anyone who had been raised to a throne could not but sicken at the thought of the atrocities which his very elevation might one day bring upon his children. A new king could hardly enjoy his dignity but by steeling his heart against every feeling of parental love.
And, moreover, these constant changes of the royal family were very hurtful to the kingdom at large. They divided it into sections that raged against each other with terrible fury. For of all wars civil wars are the worst for the fierceness of the passions they evoke, and the horrors which they inflict. Scotland and England too have had too much experience of these conflicts in other days. Many generations have elapsed since they were ended, but we have many memorials still of the desolation which they spread, while our progress and prosperity, ever since they passed away, show us clearly of what a multitude of mercies they robbed the land.
To David, therefore, it was an unspeakable comfort to be assured that his dynasty would be a stable dynasty; that his son would reign after him; that a succession of princes would follow with unquestioned right to the throne; and that if his son, or his son's son, should commit sins deserving of chastisement, that chastisement would not be withheld, but it would not be fatal, it would bring the needed correction, and thus the throne would be secure forever. A father naturally desires peace and prosperity for his children, and if he extends his view down the generations, the desire is strong that it may be well with them and with their seed for ever. But no father, in ordinary circumstances, can flatter himself that his posterity shall escape their share of the current troubles and calamities of life. David, but for this assurance, must have looked forward to his posterity encountering their share of those nameless horrors to which royal children were often born. It was an unspeakable privilege to learn, as he did now, that his dynasty would be alike permanent and secure; that, as a rule, his children would not be exposed to the atrocities of Oriental successions; that they would be under the special care and protection of God; that their faults would be corrected without their being destroyed; and that this state of blessing would continue for ages and ages to come.
The emotions roused in David by this communication were alike delightful and exuberant. He takes no notice of the disappointment - of his not being permitted to build the temple. Any regret that this might occasion is swallowed up by his delight in the store of blessing actually promised. And here we may see a remarkable instance of God's way of dealing with His people's prayers. Virtually, if not formally, David had asked of God to permit him to build a temple to His name. That petition, bearing though it did very directly on God's glory, is not vouchsafed. God does not accord that privilege to David. But in refusing him that request. He makes over to him mercies of far higher reach and importance. He refuses his immediate request only to grant to him far above all that he was able to ask or think. And how often does God do so! How often, when His people are worrying and perplexing themselves about their prayers not being answered, is God answering them in a far richer way! Glimpses of this we see occasionally, but the full revelation of it remains for the future. You pray to the degree of agony for the preservation of a beloved life; it is not granted; God appears deaf to your cry; a year or two after, things happen that would have broken your friend's heart or driven reason from its throne; you understand now why God did not fulfill your petition. Oh for the spirit of trust that shall never charge God foolishly! Oh for the faith that does not make haste, but waits patiently for the Lord, - waits for the explanation that shall come in the end, at the revelation of Jesus Christ!
It is a striking scene that is presented to us when "David went in, and sat before the Lord." It is the only instance in Scripture in which any one is said to have taken the attitude of sitting while pouring his heart out to God. Yet the nature of the communion was in keeping with the attitude. David was like a child sitting down beside his father, to think over some wonderfully kind expression of his intentions to him, and pour out his full heart into his ear. We may observe in the address of David how pervaded it is by the tone of wonder. This, indeed, is its great characteristic. He expresses wonder at the past, at God's selecting one obscure in family and obscure in person; he wonders at the present: How is it Thou hast brought me thus far? and still more he wonders at the future, the provision made for the stability of his house in all time coming. "And is this the manner of man, O Lord God?"* All true religious feeling is pervaded by an element of wonder; it is this element that warms and elevates it. In David's case it kindles intense adoration and gratitude, with reference both to God's dealings with himself and His dealings with Israel. "What one nation in the earth is like Thy people, even like Israel, whom God went to redeem for a people to Himself, and to make Him a name, and to do for you great things and terrible, for Thy land, before Thy people, which Thou redeemedst to Thee from Egypt, from the nations and their gods?" This wonder at past goodness, moreover, begets great confidence for the future. And David warmly and gratefully expresses this confidence, and looks forward with exulting feelings to the blessings reserved for him and his house. And finally he falls into the attitude of supplication, and prays that it may all come to pass. Not that he doubts God's word; the tone of the whole prayer is the tone of gratitude for the past and confidence in the future. But he feels it right to take up the attitude of a suppliant, to show, as we believe, that it must all come of God's free and infinite mercy; that not one of all the good things which God had promised could be claimed as a right, for the least and the greatest were due alike to the rich grace of a sovereign God. "Therefore now let it please Thee to bless the house of Thy servant, that it may continue forever before Thee; for Thou, O Lord God, hast spoken it, and with Thy blessing let the house of Thy servant be blessed forever." Appropriate ending for a remarkable prayer! appropriate, too, not for David only, but for every Christian praying for his country, and for every Christian father praying for his family! "With Thy blessing," bestowed alike in mercy and in chastisement, in what Thou givest and in what Thou withholdest, but making all things work together for eternal good - "With Thy blessing let the house of Thy servant be blessed forever." (*The expression is very obscure, whether we take the affirmative form of the Revised Version or the interrogative form of the Authorized Version. "And this, too, after the manner of men, O Lord God!" (R.V.) We must choose between these opposite meanings. We prefer the interrogative form of the A.V. David's wonder being the more excited that God's ways were here so much above man's.)
We seem to see in this prayer the very best of David - much intensity of feeling, great humility, wondering gratitude, holy intimacy and trust, and supreme satisfaction in the blessing of God. We see him walking in the very light of God's countenance, and supremely happy. We see Jacob's ladder between earth and heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. Moreover, we see the infinite privilege which is involved in having God for our Father, and in being able to realize that He is full of most fatherly feelings to us. The joy of David in this act of fellowship with God was the purest of which human beings are capable. It was indeed a joy unspeakable and full of glory. Oh that men would but acquaint themselves with God and be at peace! Let it be our aim to cherish as warm sentiments of trust in God, and to look forward to the future with equal satisfaction and delight.
A very important question arises in connection with this chapter, to which we have not yet adverted, but which we cannot pass by. In that promise of God respecting the stability of David's throne and the perpetual duration of his dynasty, was there any reference to the Messiah, any reference to the spiritual kingdom of which alone it could be said with truth that it was to last forever? The answer to this question is very plain, because some of the words addressed by God to David are quoted in the New Testament as having a Messianic reference. "To which of the angels said He at any time, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to Me a son?" (Hebrews 1:5). If we consider, too, how David's dynasty really came to an end as a reigning family some five hundred years after, we see that the language addressed to him was not exhausted by the fortunes of his family. In the Divine mind the prophecy reached forward to the time of Christ, and only in Christ was it fully verified. And it seems plain from some words of St. Peter on the day of Pentecost that David understood this. He knew that "God had sworn to him that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh. He would raise up Christ to sit on His throne" (Acts 2:30). From the very exalted emotions which the promise raised in his breast, and the enthusiasm with which he poured forth his thanksgivings for it, we infer that David saw in it far more than a promise that for generations to come his house would enjoy a royal dignity. He must have concluded that the great hope of Israel was to be fulfilled in connection with his race, God's words implied, that it was in His line the promise to Abraham was to be fulfilled - "In thee and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." He saw Christ's day afar off and was glad. To us who look back on that day the reasons for gladness and gratitude are far stronger than they were even to him. Then let us prize the glorious fact that the Son of David has come, even the Son of God, who hath given us understanding that we may know Him that is true. And while we prize the truth, let us embrace the privilege; let us become one with Him in whom we too become sons of God, and with whom we may cherish the hope of reigning for ever as kings and priests, when He comes to gather His redeemed that they may sit with Him on the throne of His glory.