Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
Our passage today is about two houses: the physical house of the Jerusalem Temple, and the dynastic house of David the King. The first is easily dealt with. The fact is that Solomon built it, but you can’t help but get the impression that it is a bit of an embarrassment to the writers that it wasn’t David himself, who in so many ways epitomises the golden age of Israel. So to have David getting the idea to do it but then being told by the prophet that in fact God wants Solomon to carry out the work is a win-win situation.
But more difficult is the royal and dynastic house which God promises to build on David’s line. This passage is full of promises, promises built on recollections of the past. God called and used David, he has been faithfully present throughout his ministry, and he has led the nation down the years. Whilst it obviously wasn’t his will to build a physical house at this point, he did intend to continue David’s royal line for ever: the text is full of promises to that effect. Note that the promises are completely unconditional: elsewhere God’s promises are dependent on the continued faithfulness of the people, and their avoidance of idolatry, but not here. There is one small clause, conveniently filleted out by our lectionary compliers, in v 14, which says that if one of David’s descendants does go off the rails God will punish him at the hands of human oppressors, but that will not invalidate the promises or remove his love and favour from him.
So of course the huge question is simply put: why did God not keep his promises? Why is the ongoing story in 1 and 2 Kings a story of rebellion, depravity, and final abandonment by God to the Babylonian exile? Why are the extravagant and unconditional promises in this chapter not followed up in real life?
It is true to say that God’s favour does to some extent form a buffer between the nation and punishment. Without this favoured relationship one gets the impression that they would have been in exile much sooner, but God is patient and faithful, and withholds punishment as long as he can. But the fact remains that the promises of this chapter don’t seem to be fulfilled as the history of Israel unfolds.
Maybe that’s why this text is set just before Christmas, when the church focusses on the calling of Mary to bear the Christ to a waiting world. Great David’s greater king is soon to appear, and in him the royal line continues, and will continue for ever, although like his ancestor David it will take a while before he is recognised and acknowledged as king, and he will have to face opposition and violence before he is crowned through his victory on the cross.
The take home from this, I think, is that sometimes the stream of God’s promises flows underground. We can lose sight of it, and it appears to have drizzled away into the soil and come to nothing. But then when we least expect it, it can spring up again as the flow continues. Like that famous but somewhat twee footprints poem, there are sometimes only one set of prints in the sand. The challenge is to keep believing that the river of God’s purposes and promises continues to flow when we can’t actually see it for ourselves.
In the words of Tim Vine:
“My precious child, I love you and will never leave you, never, ever, during your trials and testings. When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I thought it would be fun if we both hopped.”