1 Chron. 17 is (almost) identical to 2 Samuel 7, in which David wishes to build a temple for God, but is told (via the prophet Nathan) that this job will be his son’s, instead. In both cases, the chapters conclude with David’s lengthy giving of thanks.

The story opens with David, his own palace completed, thinking that he might like to tackle a temple next. Being the godly king that he is, he first consults with his court prophet, Nathan. Good thing he did, too, because it turns out that God doesn’t want a temple – at least not from David:

For I have not dwelt in a house since the day I led up Israel to this day, but I have gone from tent to tent and from dwelling to dwelling. (1 Chron. 17:5)

In all that time, he continues, he has never asked any of the judges to build him a temple – underscoring that the idea is coming from David, and not from God. And yet, the idea seems to appearl to him, because he next declares that he will have a temple, only that it will be build by one of David’s sons, instead.

The word of God came to Nathan, by Charles Joseph Staniland

The word of God came to Nathan, by Charles Joseph Staniland

This is where we encounter the one significant difference between the two versions of the story: In 2 Sam. 7:14-15, God says of Solomon: “When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; but I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul whom I put away from before you.” Instead, 1 Chron. 17:13 skips right ahead to: “I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you.”

The most obvious point, here, is that the Chronicler has erased all mention of Solomon doing wrong, while the author of Samuel acknowledges that Solomon will stumble, and that he will pay for it.

The second difference worth mentioning is that the Chronicler erases the name of Saul, even while he keeps the reference to him. He knows he has to mention Saul, but he clearly doesn’t like doing so. The Chronicler would much rather Saul had never existed.

In the second half of both chapters, David goes to God after Nathan has finished, and he makes a lengthy speech of thanks-giving and praise. He displays his humility (“Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that thou hast brought me thus far?” – 1 Chron. 17:16), and goes on and on in praise of God.

And with that, David is off the hook.

By the way, this chapter contains a fantastic pun on the word “house.” It is variously used to mean David’s palace, God’s temple, and David’s dynasty. In other words, David builds himself a house, so he wants to build God a house, so God builds him a house instead. It’s fabulous.

But why??

This, of course, leaves us with one final question: Why does God reject David’s offer of a temple? James Pate offers a fairly good listing of the possibilities (which I paraphrase with some comments of my own):

  1. Because God is a god of nomads, meant to dwell only in a tabernacle or a tent rather than a permanent structure. This is supported by 2 Sam. 7:5-7 and 1 Chron. 17:4-6, but the obvious problem with this interpretation is that he will be housed in a temple later on.
  2. David, a warrior, had shed too much blood in warfare, supported by 1 Chron. 22:8. Yet Pate asks the obvious question: Were these battles not sanctioned by God? Why, then, would they count against David? Though I feel that the objection ignores the decidedly unfair rules we’ve seen so many of regarding ritual purity, such as the prohibition on priests mourning the death of a wife or a married daughter (Lev. 21:1). The rules needn’t make sense or be fair when ritual is concerned, and it’s perfectly possible for David to be considered tainted by doing “the Lord’s work”.
  3. David didn’t build the temple for a perfectly practical reason: He was too busy fighting Israel’s enemies. He didn’t have time to build a proper temple, one suitable for God. This is supported by 1 Kings 5:3, though makes little sense in the context of what God says through Nathan in these chapters. Still, Pate argues that this interpretation is implied in God’s statement, since “both of these chapters stress that God will bring Israel to a state of security, implying that it was not fully present when David wanted to build the Temple. And, sure enough, in subsequent chapters, David still has more wars to fight.”
  4. God denied David the building of the temple in order to chastise him for coming up with the idea. If a temple is to be built, then it will be build in God’s time, not a king’s. So even though God liked David’s idea, he couldn’t reward him for having had it by letting him have the honour of executing it.

And, of course, there’s always the simplest and least-satisfying answer: Because he didn’t. This is a problem for a foundational king who has been mythologised as an archetype of godly monarchy by a culture that had had a temple for about 400 years. All the rest is post hoc theologising.

My personal headcanon explanation (which presumes historicity) is that we are witnessing a cultural evolution. Prior to David, we had a tribal and still somewhat nomadic (or, at least, rural and rural-focused) population. David himself was a shepherd and a bandit. Despite the claims of this chapter, it might never have occurred to him to take God out of his tent.

Solomon, on the other hand, was far more urban. He was born and raised in Israel’s capitol city of Jerusalem, in a more settled time. He would have been disconnected from the semi-nomadic lifestyle that his father might have grown up with. For him, a god who lives in a tent would have seemed odd, especially through exposure to surrounding cultures and their temples (the temples of Dagon built by the Philistines are mentioned a few times, for example). Perhaps the nomadic heritage would have seemed less important to him, and so he midwifed a transition to a more settled, urban-based variation of the YHWH cult. This, of course, evolved into the heavily centralized Deuteronomist cult (which was still fighting its rural variants).

In other words, Solomon’s building of the temple may simply be an expression of an urbanizing political landscape.