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In spite of the fact that he appears in only three scenes in Holy Scripture, it would be hard to overestimate the importance of the prophet Nathan in biblical history, for it was through Nathan that God revealed his special covenant with David’s royal family.
In this respect Nathan’s role in the unfolding of biblical revelation is analogous to that of the prophet Moses. Just as Israel was aware of its covenantal relationship to God only through the prophetic mediation of Moses, so the house of David knew of its more particular covenantal relationship to God only through the prophetic mediation of Nathan. The latter is thus at the root of that whole dimension of the biblical theology that goes by the name “messianic.”
In this respect it is useful to contrast Nathan with the prophet Samuel, who regarded Israel’s establishment of the kingship as, at root, an act of infidelity. For Samuel, the monarchy, if it was a necessary evil, was still an evil. The last of Israel’s pre-monarchical Judges, Samuel foresaw the many misfortunes that would enter Israel’s history through its kings, and he warned the people of the abuses that they would suffer from the institution of royalty (1 Samuel 8). Finally obliged by a special revelation to accept the royal institution (8:22), he did so reluctantly, suggesting his reservations even at the coronation of King Saul.
We find no such hesitancy in Nathan, who prophesies God’s ongoing preservation of the Davidic royal house through the bond of an everlasting covenant. Holy Scripture gives us three different accounts of Nathan’s messianic prophecy (2 Samuel 7, 1 Chronicles 17, Psalm 89), so important was his message in the unfolding of God’s plan.
Even the wording of that prophecy is enlightened by the biblical description of its context. As the narrative scene opens, David at last “sat in his own house” at Jerusalem, his grasp on the royal throne finally secure. The “house” (bayith) of David becomes the major metaphor of the whole account. Now at rest in his house, then, David determines to build a “house” also for the Lord, a permanent dwelling to replace the tabernacle which had for so long housed the Ark of the Covenant and which was only recently moved to Jerusalem.
This perceived need for giving the Lord a proper “house” places Nathan’s prophecy within the larger context of the Books of Samuel. Originally a single book, “Samuel” begins and ends with God’s proper “house” as a common and unifying theme. First Samuel commences at the shrine of Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept; indeed, the Greek text of 1:9 even calls that shrine a “temple,” naos. Corresponding to this introduction, the last chapter of Second Samuel comes to a climax on “the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite,” on which David builds an altar to the Lord. The earliest readers of the book were well aware that this was to be the site of Solomon’s temple. (Indeed, the parallel account in 1 Chronicles 21 is immediately followed by the story of David’s gathering of building material, in chapter 22, to be used in the construction of this temple.)
Thus, taken together, the common structure of the two books of Samuel tells the history of the movement of the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh to Jerusalem, where it will be enshrined in the national temple. David’s desire to build God a house, then, touches on the unifying theme of the Books of Samuel.
Nathan’s word to the king, however, is that God does not want David to build him a house. On the contrary, God is determined to build a “house” for David. Here, of course, the meaning of the word has shifted from a material dwelling to a royal dynasty. David’s “house” will be the permanent and fixed abode of God’s mercy (hesed—2 Samuel 7:15) in this world.
The real “house” for Samuel, then, is not the temple that Solomon will build at Jerusalem. It is the dynasty that God establishes (haqim—2 Samuel 7:16) to fulfill his salvific will.
The prophecy of Nathan here picks up on the earlier prophetic words from two women in 1 Samuel: Hannah, who foretold that God would “give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed” (2:10), and Abigail, who announced to David that “the Lord will certainly make for my lord an enduring house” (25:28).