In the ancient Near East, kingship and temple-building went hand in hand. The king—believed to be the servant of the gods and the conduit through which the gods interacted with the people—was responsible for the house of the national deity.* A monarch’s fulfillment of this sacred duty conveyed that his rule was legitimate.
Divine and Political Favor
It was customary for a newly crowned king, especially a usurper, to celebrate his ascension by building or refurbishing a temple for the deity who had helped him acquire his throne. According to Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen, building a temple was partly intended to ensure the deity’s continued presence:
Like a human dwelling, the temple was the place where the owner could be found. Its presence among the houses of the human community was a visible assurance that the god was present and available.**
The presence of the divine guaranteed the king’s throne as well as his political security. A king who could boast that he had the favor of the gods was a king to whom allegiance was due. Israelite participation in this cultural phenomenon is evident in 2 Samuel 7:1–2:
Now it came about when the king lived in his house, and Yahweh had given him rest on every side from all his enemies, that the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within tent curtains.”
Yet this temple-building paradigm seen throughout the ancient Near East is somewhat altered for Israel. God refused to give David permission to build a temple—a response that in the surrounding cultures would have undermined the king’s legitimacy. But Yahweh did promise David the security he sought. Indeed, God assured David that he would protect him, his people, and his dynasty (7:8–16). In fact, Yahweh pledged security to David in an irrevocable oath: a covenant of “royal grant.”*** How should we interpret Yahweh’s seemingly contradictory response—first refusing to allow David to secure power by building a temple, and then confirming by an oath and grant that David was his chosen king?
The Name and the House
To understand the message of this narrative, we need to pay attention to the author’s wordplay. David claimed to be concerned that Yahweh’s reputation (literally his “name”) was being damaged because he didn’t have a temple (literally “house”). Yahweh’s response, however, makes it clear that David was really concerned for his own reputation (“name”), which was being damaged because David lacked a “house” (or “dynasty”). Both the biblical text and ancient Near Eastern custom demonstrate that David was really asking for permission to secure his own throne by building a temple for Yahweh. The temple would testify to everyone far and near that Yahweh’s presence dwelled in Jerusalem—David’s capital city. In other words, David likely planned to advance his career as king of Israel by building Yahweh’s temple.
Yahweh’s response to David’s request cuts to the heart of the matter.
“Are you the one who should build Me a house to dwell in? Indeed I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the sons of Israel from Egypt, even to this day! Rather I have been moving about in a tent, even in a tabernacle! Wherever I have gone with all the sons of Israel, did I ever speak a word with one of the tribes of Israel, which I commanded to shepherd My people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?’ But now, this is what you will say to my servant, to David, ‘Thus says Yahweh of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to become ruler over My people Israel’ ” (2 Sam 7:5–8).
Yahweh’s response demonstrates that David had misunderstood his steward-like relationship with Yahweh. Operating under cultural assumptions regarding kingship, David mistakenly thought he was the decision-maker and that Yahweh could be manipulated. Yahweh rebuked David for overstepping his bounds, yet he affirmed him as well, promising David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (7:16). The wordplay between “name” and “house” in this text conveys an ironic reversal that cuts David’s legs out from under him (“I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep”; 7:8 ESV) only to set his feet on higher ground (“Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me”; 7:16 ESV).
Kings and the Kingdom
Yahweh addressed both David’s ego and his insecurities. Like the kings of his era, David seemed to believe that he had to pacify God with a temple in order to maintain God’s favor, and he was driven by that anxious impulse. David’s prayer of thanksgiving in 2 Samuel 7:18–29 makes it clear that Yahweh recognized David’s fear, exposed it, and redeemed it. David says, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? … And who is like your people Israel, the one nation on earth whom God went to redeem to be his people, making himself a name and doing for them great and awesome things by driving out before your people, whom you redeemed for yourself from Egypt, a nation and its gods?” (2 Sam 7:18, 23 ESV).
The ultimate message of this text is that neither Israel nor its king would operate “like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:5), manipulating their God and their futures by means of their own ambitions. Rather, the human kings of Israel would stand forever under the authority of the true king, and this kingdom would be built God’s way.
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are the author’s translation.
* This is regularly illustrated in the royal monumental inscriptions of Mesopotamia. H. W. Saggs summarizes, “[P]rominent amongst the consequent duties of the king was, therefore, his responsibility for the house of the god.” The Greatness That Was Babylon (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1962), 361–63. See also Sandra Richter’s introduction to the royal monumental corpus in The Deuteronomistic History and the Name Theology: lešakkēn šemô šām in the Bible and the Ancient Near East (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2002), 130–53.
**Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 14–16.
*** See Sandra Richter, “The Concept of Covenant,” in The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 69–91.