Nathan’s prophecy in 2 Samuel 7:1-14 functions on three levels.
First, at the level of the narrative itself, the prophecy explains why David did not build the temple in Jerusalem, but his son Solomon did.
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth 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 a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. 2 Samuel 7:12-14
Solomon is David’s offspring who will build a house of cedar (7:2, 7:7) – a temple – in which the name of God can dwell. The narrative of 1 Kings 5-8 recounts the outworking of Nathan’s prophecy.
The promised temple is magnificent, but it comes at a great cost. Solomon extracted forced labor from his citizens to build the house of God, reminding the reader of the Egyptians who enslaved the Hebrews to build their cities (Exodus 1:11). Solomon also sent massive amounts of Israel’s produce to Lebanon as payment. Earlier in the narrative, the prophet Samuel had predicted how the monarchy would conscript the people for its work and take the fruits of their labors for its own purposes (1 Samuel 8:10-18). Even for the author, then, Solomon’s temple is something of a mixed blessing. The prophecy implicitly looks beyond its partial fulfillment in the age of Solomon to something greater.
Secondly, the narrative served as a word of encouragement for Jews living during and after the exile to Babylon. The Babylonians burned Solomon’s temple in 586 BCE (2 Kings 25:9). The temple Zerubbabel rebuilt many decades later was a shadow of its former glory (Haggai 2:3). Nathan’s prophecy reminds the exiles and former exiles that God’s presence is not tied to a single, big, fancy building in Jersusalem.God can be with his people wherever they are.
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 and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” 2 Samuel 7:6-7
God’s relationship with Israel expressed through the tabernacle and the temple had changed before and it could, in God’s providence, change again.
Finally, for Christians, Nathan’s prophecy looks past the earthly monarchy and the physical temple to a time when the king and the temple are united in one man. This is one of those instances in which God so inspired the prophet’s words that they promise more than even the prophet himself could understand or imagine.
When Christians hear Nathan speak of David’s offspring, their minds run to Jesus the Messiah, great David’s greater son. God is Christ’s father and Jesus is God’s son in a way that no other descendant of David ever could be. Jesus’ sonsship transcends the adoptionist language of the Judean royal liturgy (e.g, Psalm 2:7).
The eternal kingdom – the throne that that will be established forever – is Christ’s kingdom, which transcends every earthly kingdom.
The land of in which God’s people can live securely and peacefully will come down from above, a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, when Christ appears in glory at the end of the age.
Jesus, himself, is the house in which God’s name dwells, and every function of the temple has been subsumed in his person (e.g. John 2:19-21). He is the heavenly manna and the emobidment of the word of God, both of which were represented in the Ark of the Covenant. He is the mercy seat atop the Ark, at which the sins of the whole people of God were forgiven. He is the sacrifice to end all bloody sacrifices, cleansing worshippers from sin and guilt and uniting them in fellowship to God and each other. He is the bread of presence, eaten weekly as a sign of God’s love. He is the golden lamp stand, giving light to the world. The prayers of his people are incense rising to heaven. In the world, this temple is visible in the life and liturgy of the church of Jesus Christ, not in a pile of stones in Jerusalem.
In Jesus, God fulfills the words of the prophet in a manner that I’m sure would surprise both Nathan and David.