Written by Malcolm Kern
The Dwelling of God
July 19, 2015
Things were going well. At long last, things were all aligned in the king’s favour. The king’s enemies, both foreign and domestic, were on the ropes or down for the count. The king had brought the previously fractured tribes to a new unity, and shrewdly selected a new capital at a neutral site – the previously impenetrable fortress of Jebus which had been an island of foreign power in the midst of the country since its earliest days. The king’s palace and governmental center was built and fully operational. And all was quiet on the frontiers, at least for now.
So the king called his loyal advisor and announced his plan for the next major public works project – a temple, a monument to the nation’s god. And the advisor enthusiastically concurred – whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the gods are with you.
This is essentially the way 2 Samuel 7 begins, short and to the point, with a description that could fit almost any successful king in the Ancient Near East. This is precisely the way kings behaved. And perhaps the way the author shifts from the personal name “David” that he has been customarily using in the preceding chapters to this staccato repetition ‘the king, the king, the king’ – a repetition in Hebrew, if not always in English – is meant to signify that we should understand this account in the light of that culturally common behavior of kings.
Perhaps, or perhaps not. But be that as it may, what is undeniably unique about this account is what comes next. God sends advisor Nathan back to the king with a prophetic reminder that he, David, is supposed to be God’s servant, not just another Ancient Near Eastern king.
“Are you the one to build a house for me?” God asks, clearly implying that the answer is NO! Indeed, God seems to go out of his way to remind David that not only is he, David, not to be “one of those other kings”, but neither is he, YHWH, “one of those other gods.”
I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”
God, it seems, is far less interested in impressive architectural monuments to his glory than is David, less interested than the people as a whole, and certainly less interested than every other god in the Ancient Near East. Certainly God has had lots of opportunity to demand the construction of a temple as befits his glory – opportunities any other god would have certainly availed him/herself of long ago. YHWH is not “one of those gods.”
But, you say, God doesn’t reject the idea of a temple out of hand, he just says David isn’t the one to build it. And when the temple is built later by David’s son, Solomon, doesn’t the glory of God descend upon the temple in such a dramatic display of God’s presence, that the priests are unable to stand in the temple and lead the worship? And aren’t the Psalms in particular full of positive expressions of God’s blessing upon the temple?
And of course, you would be right. God does accept David’s proposal of a great monumental temple, just not to be built by David during David’s lifetime. Nor does God seem to be truly angry with David for all his harsh sounding initial rhetoric. Quite the contrary, while God insists that David will not build God a house, God promises to build David a house, a house that “will endure before me forever.”
Now those of you with either superb memories or extensive sermon notes, may recognize that on this very Sunday three years ago, I spoke from this same text in 2 Samuel. That Sunday I focused on the greatness of God’s promise to David, its connections back to Abraham and forward to Christ, and primarily on David’s response: “Who am I that you have given me all this?” But that is not my focus today. Today, I want to reflect on the ambivalence toward the temple that God seems to express in his response to David, and elsewhere throughout Scripture, and what that means for us.
Now I said that God seems not to be particularly interested in architectural grandeur, or the establishment of a great monument to his glory. May I suggest that in what God says to David we can see hints, or maybe more than just hints, of just what it is that God values more in his choice of dwelling place than cedar paneling, gold furnishings, and marble countertops. Consider these phrases that God uses: “wherever I have moved with all the Israelites” (v.7); “I have been with you wherever you have gone” (v 9); and perhaps most of all “I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a dwelling of their own” (v 10). May I suggest that what God values most in his choice of dwelling place is that God wants to dwell with his people. If his people are on the move, dwelling in tents, then God wants to be with them, and will dwell in a tent too. And if God is now going to dwell in a “house of cedar”, a temple in a fixed place, as David proposes, then God’s people too are going to have to have a dwelling of their own, firmly planted in a place. God and his people share life together.
Now in addition to God’s apparent disinterest in self-aggrandizing architecture, Scripture recognizes a certain incongruity in the idea of God, the creator of the heavens and the earth, being tied down to dwelling in a building. Solomon, for example, expresses this incongruity in his prayer of dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8:27 (NIV):
But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!
In Acts 7, which records Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin in response to charges that he was preaching against the temple and against the law, Stephen observes explicitly that “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands”, and then quotes from Isaiah 66:1-2:
“Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the Lord.
Later, Paul addressing the Athenian philosophers on Mars’ Hill will make a similar point:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything.
Unlike the other temples of the ancient world, where the human servants of the gods bring them food and wine to keep them satisfied and well disposed, God has neither need nor desire for such service, just as God says in Psalm 50:
I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
And of course, numerous prophets make it clear that God is not impressed simply by the religious festivals and ecstatic worship that the people engage in at the temple, be they ever so precise and elaborate. Nor is he so committed to the temple building and institution that he will defend it at all costs, even after his people have taken to treating him just like one of those other ancient gods. No, the commitment of God is not to the temple as a place, as a building, or even as an institution of religious activities and sacrifices, but rather to a way of dwelling among his people that involves them also dwelling with him, sharing their life together, just as John of Patmos heard in his vision of the New Jerusalem that is the climax of the book of Revelation.
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
The idea “They will be my people and I will be their God” is not a new idea, unique to John. Rather it appears again and again throughout Scripture. I was quickly able to find about 20 occurrences of that very phrase, to say nothing of the scores of other places where the idea is expressed in different words, or perhaps just hinted at as in the earliest chapters of Genesis, where God is said to have had the practice of walking with the humans in the Garden during the cool of the day. And perhaps also when God says to David concerning his descendant who will ultimately build the true temple, that “I will be his father, and he will be my son” – a reference of closeness and intimacy, and also a reference that the early church fathers all took to be a reference not so much to Solomon as to Jesus.
Which brings me finally to the Ephesians text we read this morning. In Jesus, Paul says, we who were once far off have been brought near. We who were once hostile to God have been reconciled. But even more than that, we become part of God’s house. Elsewhere, Paul will take this image of us being part of God’s house in the direction of us becoming the children of God, of us becoming those of whom God says “I will be her father, and she will be my heir” just as He says of Jesus. But here Paul takes the language in a different direction. Here, just as God played with the Hebrew word for house when speaking to David in 2 Samuel 7, Paul plays with the Greek word for house, and connects our being part of the house of God with our being the true temple of God, a temple not built with human hands, but with living stones, the place of God’s real dwelling on earth.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together by his Spirit to become a dwelling in which God lives.
Did you hear that? We are the temple where God desires to dwell with his people. We are the place where God causes his name to dwell, the place where his glory is displayed. We are not so much waiting for the new Jerusalem in order to dwell with God, as we are already being built into the temple of God right now!
Only our over familiarity with this language could keep us from hearing this as something wondrous, something far more than anything we could ask or imagine. No wonder Paul begins his letter with “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” God planned for us to be his dwelling already before the creation of the world – it has always been the plan, from the very beginning.
Now when David planned and prepared for the construction of the temple that Solomon would build, David found it appropriate to set aside the very best that he could accumulate for its construction, so that the resulting temple would befit God’s glory. If that was appropriate for what was really just a symbol of God’s dwelling, how much more is it appropriate for the living stones who make up the true dwelling of God to be the very best, how much more appropriate is it for us to be holy and blameless before God and before the world.
So, when Paul finally concludes his vision of God’s great mystery, and turns at the beginning of chapter 4 to its practical implications, it’s only natural that he should say “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
We are called not to build a temple of cedar and marble and silver and gold, we are called to be the temple, to be the place of God’s permanent dwelling in the world – not just a temporary residence that God visits now and then. We are called to be the place of God’s dwelling all day, every day, in every aspect of our lives, and most notably in all our relationships with each other and with the watching world. Just as it was for Solomon, such a calling would be too much for us, were it just up to us. But it is not just up to us. The very Spirit by whom God raised Jesus Christ from the dead is the one at work in us to build us into that holy temple, the place where God dwells.
What else can be said, except to join Paul in the doxology with which he ends chapter 3: Now to him who really is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church, his holy temple, and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.