In 2 Samuel 7, King David decides that it's unfair for him to have a palace to live in when the Ark of the Covenant (which represents the presence of God) is housed in a tent and he sets his mind to build God a temple in which to live. But then God speaks through Nathan the prophet and tells David, "I don't need a house to live in. You won't build me a house, but I will build you a house." (By the way, this lesson is the Semi-continuous OT reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for you liturgy nerds.)
By saying this, God establishes David's line as the royal line for eternity. This helps seal David as one of the great heroes of the Old Testament and help legitimate the ministry of Jesus years later because he comes from "the line of David." It's powerful, awesome, God-is-generous stuff.
But just last week I was made aware that there is something more than God's kindness at work in this passage. One of the commentators in the sermon podcast I listen to mentioned that there is also a 2nd Commandment issue at play here.
For those who don't have the Ten Commandments memorized, the second commandment is "You shall make no idols or graven images." It's purpose is to remind God's people that we only worship God, not anyone or anything else.
So what do idols have to do with building a temple? The suggestion in the commentary was that God's concern was that building a temple would lead people to worship the temple instead of God, or to believe that God lives exclusively in the temple, therefore limiting their understanding of the true God (who is a bit bigger than any one building).
This made me think immediately of modern church buildings. Most congregations in North America own a building in which they worship. And with buildings comes responsibilities and maintenance. Utilities and maintenance are a large part of many church budgets. The Property Committee is often a mandatory (and sometimes powerful) presence in the congregation. Maintaining a building takes a lot of time and energy.
At the same time, many, many congregations in North America are shrinking, making maintaining buildings (especially older ones) harder to do. Many congregations make hard-fought efforts to keep their buildings working. And most of that is admirable, but after thinking about 2 Samuel 7, I also wonder: how much of that effort is for the sake of God and how much is for the sake of the building?
Because I have met people who talk about their love for their church, how long they've been there and say something like, "I can't imagine having to go to another church." As if they would have trouble finding God outside of that building? God didn't live in one building in the time of David and God doesn't do that now. And neither does the Church that bears Christ's name. I remember learning in Sunday school: church isn't a building, it's the people.
Let me be clear that I love church buildings. I don't think churches should abandon buildings. And I love architecture. A well-designed building can help point us to God.
But they cannot be God.
And that's the point and the concern of 2 Samuel 7. There are many wonderful things -- buildings, traditions, rituals -- that serve to point us toward God, but that's not the same thing as being God. If we make those sacred things equal to God, or become convinced they are the only way to know or see God, then we are breaking the second commandment. If my faith is dependent on a building, or a pastor or teacher, or a specific type of music, then what is my faith actually in?
The temple was later built by David's son, Solomon. Years later, it was destroyed. Then it was rebuilt. And it was destroyed. Since 70 CE, there has been no one temple in Jerusalem. But God hasn't disappeared. God was still active during the Exile between the two temples and has been since. We lost a great building of worship -- twice -- but it failed to kill God or the church.
Sometimes it helps me to be reminded that we can lose an awful lot without ever losing God's promises.
From the Gray,
“You take away my firm belief and graft my soul upon Your grief.” -Jars of Clay, “O My God”