2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Kristin Philipson
It had been a long time since David had felt this way; settled, like he’d finally been able to exhale after a long time holding his breath; settled, like his insides were a clean and tidy room, everything ordered, swept, and dusted. He had had to reach far back into his memories to locate the last time he had felt this way, and the search had taken him tumbling back through the catalogue of his experience and into the body of his boyhood. For a moment he could feel the strength of the ground propping up his back and he could smell the green grass and even feel how it prickled against his bare arms. For a few moments he could remember being David, king of the pasture, herding his father’s sheep. Samuel, the old priest, had come for dinner with the family, and had sought out David and his brothers in the fields and he’d chosen David to anoint with oil – a ritual designed to impart God’s blessing.
Even now David could recall the oil’s coolness as it spilled and dripped over his scalp, how it made him want to roll his shoulders back and stretch his neck high and now David the king was settled in his palace – blessed indeed – the former sheep-herd now Shepherd-in-Chief of the entire kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Years of hard work and now David had arrived, settled, for the first time in a long time.
When I first read over the scripture for this Sunday, “settled,” was the word from this passage that jumped out at me – “the king was settled in his palace.” For some people “settled” is a word that makes them think of boring, staid existences, lives free from any risk; for them the word carries an implicit air of resignation. But for me, “settled,” is an aspirational word; to be “settled” is a state to strive for. People who are “settled” are steady and secure – they’ve relaxed into something, a comfy chair, a committed relationship, a stately country house. For me, to be “settled” is to arrive at a sense of contentedness, a knowingness, a calmness. To be “settled” is to meet the chaotic and unpredictable in life with assurance and conviction; the way I see it, to be “settled” it is to be the eye of the storm. I think because the dominant feeling in my life recently is unsettledness – especially when I look at the news – reading about someone whose defining characteristic is a sense of settledness got me thinking: how does David do it? What is it that allows David to feel this way?
Does David feel settled because he’s got everything under control? Doesn’t the story start out saying that David had been given “rest from all his enemies” (2 Sam 7:1)? David has nothing to worry about! One of the questions people ask when you’ve just moved to a new place – let’s say it’s to a new house or a new apartment, or a new job – is, “How are you settling in?” What people want to know is whether you have everything under control. To ask if we’re feeling settled is to acknowledge that events and circumstances can suddenly make us feel as though someone has accidentally hip-checked the neatly-arranged cabinet that is our life; for a moment everything is shaking and looks like it may actually crash. A sense of unsettledness can come from feeling we are not entirely in control of our situation. It’s having someone show up at our house before all the boxes have been fully unpacked, and newspaper and bubblewrap are strewn across the kitchen floor. We would like to offer them a cup of tea, but honestly we have no idea where to find the kettle. We’ll feel more settled, we think, just as soon as we get all our things under control.
David feels settled and he believes this is so because he has his own sense of agency again – he has the same sense of being in control of his own destiny as he did when he was a child – he feels completely settled now that he has the control of a king, so settled, in fact, that he’s begun to worry about God. “Here I am living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent,” David says to the prophet, Nathan, as he lounges on cushions after dinner one evening (2 Sam 7:2). David is finally settled, but it seems to him that God is clearly not, and for David there is something not entirely right about this. The ark of God was the wooden chest the people of Israel used to carry the stone tablets on which the ten commandments were written but it was also considered to house the very presence of God, and when the ark was not in use it was simply stored in a tent. The ark’s most defining feature, more striking than the sculptures of winged seraphs that knelt on top at either end of the box – more impressive than the fact of its being covered in gold – was the fact that it was portable. The practice of the people of Israel had been to carry the presence of God with them wherever they journeyed, but now that David is settled in a palace God’s inherent “unsettledness” embarrasses him. A portable God doesn’t convey a sense of permanence, of being in control. Where is the grandiosity in a wooden chest, even if it is gold-plated? Who approaches a tent with awe and wonder? Who would take such a God seriously? David had been at war with enough foreign empires to have gained some insight into how they treated their gods and so David decided he would build God a house – a glorious, soaring temple. A God who is settled in a temple comes across as a God who’s got everything under control. And this is how David wants God to be perceived.
Last Monday I had dinner with our friends, Rafi and Assad. Rafi is a former refugee from Syria and he and my husband, Steve, and I were all part of a group that helped to sponsor Assad. I had spent most of the day before they came over bringing a sense of order to our house after having been away for almost a year. I was getting settled; getting things under control, debating on which shelf in the cupboard to put the casserole dishes and mulling over which books I didn’t need to put back on the bookshelf. By the end of the day I felt again like the reigning monarch over my little rectangular portion of Toronto. A sense of peace and permanence permeated the house. Rafi said the same sense had permeated his family’s apartment in Aleppo, before he’d had to leave. “We left with nothing,” he said. No casserole dishes, no books, “just a few clothes,” he said. Whole apartments and businesses people had furnished and built up over decades were abandoned overnight. “I don’t even have a photo of my father,” he said.
The stereotype of people of faith is that we feel a sense of settledness and contentedness and hopefulness because we believe that God has total control over our lives, that God reigns like an all-powerful monarch from a castle in the sky directing this and ordering that, God the great Orchestrator of a puppet show that spans the entire universe. The assumption is that people of faith feel more settled because we think God controls everything that happens to us and so we don’t really have to worry about anything. Well, I’ve been a person of faith all of my life, and I’m still prone to anxiety and worry and heartache. Sometimes I wish I could believe in a God who controls everything, but that would bring its own psychological difficulties. Who could possibly believe God has a hand in the war in Syria, for example, in the fact that Rafi and Assad had to flee from their homes? Who could possibly believe God has a hand in the abuse of children, or in a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, or in a devastating hurricane? To believe that God is in total control doesn’t really leave us feeling more settled but can only leave us more angry and cheated and hurt. That said, I do think that as people of faith we carry with us a sense of settledness and hopefulness, so where do these come from? For all that Rafi and Assad have been through, they are still believers.
One of the places we visited this past year in California was Yosemite National Park. Knowing we would only be there for two days I consulted a bunch of guidebooks to make sure we got the most out of our visit. The first day we hiked past Vernal Falls to Nevada Falls. We saw a rainbow shine through the water’s mist and we saw the Merced river cascade over Glacier Point – it was awe-inspiring. But the guidebooks all said the hike we’d planned for our second day would be even more spectacular – three miles up to the top of Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America. Once at the top the guidebooks all assured us that the view would not disappoint, but halfway into the hike I began to have my doubts. The trail consisted entirely of switchbacks. Our view was a narrow dirt path that led to a bend about half a city block up ahead. We’d round the bend only to see another path almost identical to the one we’d just completed. Everyone complained; one child wanted to nap in the middle of the trail, another wanted to turn back. We chose instead to keep walking, trusting that the guidebooks would deliver on their promise.
What’s interesting about the story of king David in the Book of Samuel is that scholars believe it was finally put into written form by refugees. The northern kingdom of Israel was invaded by the Assyrian Empire and later the southern kingdom of Judah was invaded by the Babylonians. And for a people in unsettled times and circumstances, living far from home, anxious and worried every time they read the news, telling David’s story gave them a real sense of settledness and calm and contentedness and hope; not because it told them that their God was a God who controlled everything, pulling on the strings of the universe from behind a thick curtain in the temple, but that the God of Israel, the God in whom they found peace and hope, is a God who delivers on promises. A deep and abiding sense of settledness is not the byproduct of having everything under control, but of meeting the unpredictable challenges of life trusting that we are not alone. “I will walk among you and be your God,” God has promised, “and you will be my people” (Lev. 26:12). “I have been with you wherever you have gone,” God says to David in our story (2 Sam 7:9).
The word, “house,” in Hebrew is especially poetic because it can be heard in multiple ways. It can mean a dwelling – a home, a palace, a temple – but it can also mean that which outlasts even these: a legacy. “Are you the one to build a house for me?” God asks David. Don’t you know that I am building a house for you? I will raise up your children to succeed you and I will establish their kingdom. They will be the ones to build a house – a legacy – for my Name (2 Sam 7:12-13). The people of Israel and Judah kept telling the story of David and eventually wrote it down not because David was just a great and powerful king, all settled because he had everything sorted and under control, but because when their lives felt out of control and unpredictable they wanted to the words of God’s promise to ring in their ears and echo in the chambers of their hearts: I am building a legacy of love and justice and healing that outlasts any empire. “I will provide a place for my people…and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own…. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore…” (2 Sam 7:10). I declare that I will establish a house – a legacy – for you! It might feel like you’re walking a series of steep switchbacks that seem to never end; you think you’ve finally arrived only to turn the corner and see another long path stretching out ahead of you, but trust me, God says, you’ll get there and the view will be spectacular – justice and abundance and health and wholeness for all. “O Sovereign Lord,” David declares in a prayer that follows the story we read today, “you are God! [And] [y]our words are trustworthy…” (2 Sam 7:28). The fact of the steep climb, the fact of the switchbacks we encountered as we wound our way up to Yosemite falls did not alter the fact of what we would eventually see. In unsettled times and in unsettled places what gives me a sense of settledness, of contentedness – of hope! – as a person of faith is that God has not altered God’s view.
What exactly happens in that moment David remembers from when he was younger, what happens when Samuel anoints him, what happens to make David feel so settled? Is it the knowledge that God is now in control of every aspect of his life? I think what happened is that David took God’s promise to heart, that nothing – no empire, no catastrophe, no circumstance, no accident, no person, no place, no calamity, no trial – “nothing can either quench [God’s] love or finally defeat [God’s] gracious purpose for [humanity]” (United Church of Canada, 1940 Statement of Faith). “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed [David] in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of [God] came upon David in power” (1 Samuel 16:13). David feels settled, not because God is planning his every move, not because God has total control, not because his life is predictable or easy – but because God has made David’s heart and mind a home for God’s Spirit, and construction hasn’t stopped: “The Lord declares…that [God] will establish a house for you” (2 Sam 7:11).