We approach this passage in the midst of our study of the Book of Hebrews. Hebrews 1:5 quotes a central verse from this passage:
“I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son”?
— 2 Samuel 7:14
In context, God is making a covenant with David. David wants to make God a beautiful temple, but God tells David that he should not. Then God lays out a counteroffer of sorts: a covenant of eternal blessing for Israel and an eternal line on the throne.
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The Covenant with David
The Davidic covenant is central to the promise of scripture. Weinfeld, in his article “The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East,” tells us that there are two types of covenants in the ancient near east: treaties and royal grants. This covenant, he argues, is like a royal grant.
The Mosaic covenant (which he argues is more like a vassal treaty) is full of warnings and curses for what will happen to Israel if they break the terms of the covenant. This passage laying out the Davidic covenant has nothing like that. It’s full of nothing but blessing. The Mosaic covenant was full of Israel’s obligations, while the Davidic covenant is a unilateral covenant of blessing. Later reflections on this covenant do see requirements to receive the enduring blessing (Ps. 132:11-12), but there are no curses attached to faithlessness in this covenant. As we’ll see, while the blessing may be conditional temporarily, there is an eternal component to this covenant that is guaranteed by God and is not conditional.
David Seeks to Build a Temple (vv. 1–3)
Now when the king lived in his house and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, 2 the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” 3 And Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the LORD is with you.”
— 2 Samuel 7:1–3 (ESV)
The timeline seems a little odd. In the story of 2 Samuel, we’re still in the middle of David’s reign. Verse 1 seems to indicate that David doesn’t merely have a temporary rest, but that David is living in his house and is no longer at war with surrounding nations. Soon after this chapter, however, David has many more enemies to fight. So this chapter may be arranged thematically instead of chronologically, in order to continue on the story of the Ark that is told in chapter 6, despite skipping a few decades. I could be wrong, and this could be a brief period of peace before war resumed.
Whatever the chronology, David has “rest” from his enemies. He no longer has to constantly be at war. Rest is a key word in this passage. We’ll see it again. We’re also coming to this passage from the book of Hebrews, where “rest” is an important theme (it occurs eleven times in chapters 3 and 4).
David remarks to his court prophet that he “dwells” in a house of cedar but the ark of God “dwells” in a tent. Dwelling is language of place and personhood. As we will see, David’s words about the “ark of God” dwelling in a tent seem to be synonymous, at least in David’s mind, with God himself dwelling in the tent.
Nathan, seeing nothing wrong with this idea, initially agrees, but God speaks up to correct him and David.
God Refuses a Temple, for Now (vv. 4–7)
4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan, 5 “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: Would you build me a house to dwell in? 6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. 7 In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”
— 2 Samuel 7:4–7 (ESV)
God is not pleased with the presumption that David can tell God where he ought to dwell. In verse 5, God tells Nathan to “Go and tell my servant David.” This is a reminder of who is king. David may be the human king of Israel, but God is its true king. David is a servant. The last instruction from God on his dwelling place is that he should dwell in a tabernacle (the tent-temple). He is the one who gets to decide his dwelling place.
But as Stephen says in his speech before the Jewish leaders (Acts 7:46-50) tells us and as Solomon tells us when he christens the Temple (1 Kings 8:27), the heavens and the earth are God’s dwelling place, not any one particular tent or building.
God also gets to decide who will build his temple. We learn elsewhere that David cannot build a temple because he had to fight for such a long time and because he shed too much blood (1 Kings 5:3, 1 Chronicles 22:8).
God has not asked for a temple, and David, the servant, has presumed too much of God, his king. God is not offended however, and while he refuses a temple, God will honor David in a different way.
A Reminder of David’s Past (vv. 8–9)
Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.
— 2 Samuel 7:8-9 (ESV)
First, God reminds David of his past. David may be king of Israel now, but the “I” is emphatic. I took you from the pasture. God is reminding David of his delegated authority. When David was in the pasture tending sheep, God was with him. When David slew Goliath, God was with him. When David ran for his life from Saul, hiding in caves and scrapping for food, God was with him. When David was crowned Israel’s king, God was with him. When David went to war with Israel’s enemies, God was with him.
David’s life is one of service to God, but God has never abandoned his servant. Indeed, God will “make for [him] a great name…” God will honor David for his faithful service with a great name. A name, as we’ve seen before, is important in scripture. God’s name is a symbol of his glory and presence (Deuteronomy 12:5, for one of many examples). When David’s name is great and known throughout the world, that signifies that David’s glory, his fame and majesty, will be great. But this is a delegated glory. David didn’t earn glory through his own actions, but by being a servant.
Do we seek glory? Do I write these very words for glory? Or to be a servant? When you go to your job, do you do it as an act of service to God, or as a means to gain your own glory? David is an example for us. Whenever he tried to take what he wanted (Bathsheba), the consequences were severe. But when he was a servant of the Most High God, that is when he was glorified. His descendent, Jesus, followed the same pattern. His glorification is not because of his own majesty (and boy does Jesus have a claim to majesty as God in flesh!), but through his humility and service to a mankind that rejected and crucified him (Philippians 2).
God Promises a Kingdom (vv. 10-11a)
And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies.
— 2 Samuel 7:10-11a (ESV)
In the course of this covenant, God makes ten promises, which should remind us of the ten words (Exodus 20:1) God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai—often called the Ten Commandments. Here God speaks another ten words, promising blessing for David, Israel, and David’s descendants.
In these verses, we turn from David himself to God’s people, Israel. God promises Israel that they will no longer face war as they have since the time of Joshua. David has fought wars for his whole life to establish Israel’s claim to the land. God promises that those wars will come to an end.
And come to an end they do. Solomon’s reign is a period of great peace, which allows Israel to rest and Solomon to build a temple for God in peace.
But that peace does not last. Later kings would face many battles and wars, ending in the sacking of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the children of God going into exile. How can we understand that event in light of this covenant? We will see more below, but we have already discussed the answer. This covenant is not unconditional in the near-term. The condition for Israel being free from their enemies, as with other parts of this covenant, is faithfulness to the Lord. There are no curses attached to this covenant, but that doesn’t mean that the blessings are unconditional.
Yet, as I also said, part of this covenant is unconditional. This covenant functions like so many other prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus is the fulfillment, not just of explicit prophecy, but of all the shadows in the Law, Prophets, and Writings. What is the great hope of mankind? A return to Eden. The promised land is a type of Eden, a home for the people of God.
When God speaks here of Israel being planted and facing no more war, we are reminded of the garden, planted in Eden (Genesis 2:8, where the same Hebrew word is used). The promised land and Israel’s freedom from war is a type and shadow of the ultimate promise of humanity’s return to Eden, led by the truly human one: David’s descendent Jesus of Nazareth.
God Promises a Lineage (vv. 11b-17)
Moreover, the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’” In accordance with all these words, and in accordance with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.
— 2 Samuel 7:11b-17 (ESV)
Now YHWH moves on to the second part of his promises. He promises a “house” to David. This is another inversion of David’s living in his house (v1) and desiring to make God a house (v2). God has rejected David’s desire (v5) but now promises to build David a house. But this is a play on words. God isn’t going to build a bigger and better palace. God is going to build a lineage. Think of it like “the house of David,” not meaning his literal palace, but his dynasty.
Then God promises an offspring. This offspring will: have his kingdom established, build a house for YHWH, and his throne will be forever. He will be adopted by God, an inheritor of the kingdom. When the offspring sins, David’s dynasty won’t be like Saul’s and be revoked. God promises that David’s dynasty will be eternal.
Fulfillment of this prophecy can be seen, first, in Solomon, David’s son. Solomon’s reign was a period of great peace and prosperity for Israel, and Solomon built a great and beautiful temple for YHWH God. Solomon did sin, and sin greatly, but God did not abandon David’s line, and it continued for several more centuries and it fell into deep debauchery. Eventually Jerusalem was burned and the Israel was exiled.
Does the fact that Israel was exiled and David’s line removed from the throne mean that the prophecy failed, or worse, that God lied? This is where we come to the conditional part of the prophecy. In Solomon’s prayer of dedication, he says this:
Now therefore, O LORD, God of Israel, keep for your servant David my father what you have promised him, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel, if only your sons pay close attention to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.’
— 1 Kings 8:25 (ESV)
Notice that the last part puts a condition on David’s dynasty sitting on the throne. It requires that David’s descendants serve YHWH. As long as God is a Father to them, they shall be sons to God.
But in another sense this prophecy is eternal. It declares that David’s dynasty will be forever. How is that possible if the promise is conditional and David’s descendants fail? We need the truly human one, the one who will pass every test, unlike Adam and Eve, unlike Abraham, unlike Moses, unlike David. God himself will be the guarantee of this promise. The Word will be become flesh as a descendent of David.
The author of Hebrews see this passage as fulfilled in Jesus (Hebrews 1:5), but when talking about Jesus as the true descendent of David, it does raise the question of how we should understand the passage about the son committing iniquity (v14) when Jesus was sinless. This is fairly simple to resolve. The passage about iniquity is a promise about how God will handle David’s descendants when they sin. It doesn’t have to apply to Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the hope of the passage: a perfect descendent who is worthy to be an eternal king of an eternal kingdom. The sin of David’s descendants will not threaten that ultimate hope.
Paul also riffs on this passage in an interesting way:
For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
…and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.”
2 Corinthians 6:16b, 18
In Jesus and through the salvation he bought for us, we are adopted into the family and sonship of God. Therefore the sonship that Jesus has, the inheritance he has, is ours too. In Jesus, we are the descendants of David and the inheritors of the promise of an eternal kingdom and ultimate rest. No more violence or war. If you are in Christ, you too are an inheritor of the return to Eden.