Listening to God is an important part of prayer. But how do we know when God is speaking?
2 Samuel, chapter 7; 1 Chronicles, chapter 17; Psalm 2; Matthew, chapter 20
When King David was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all the surrounding enemies, the king summoned Nathan the prophet. “Look,” David said, “I am living in a beautiful cedar palace, but the Ark of God is out there in a tent!” Nathan replied to the king, “Go ahead and do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you.”
But that same night the Lord said to Nathan: “Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord has declared: Are you the one to build a house for me to live in? I have never lived in a house, from the day I brought the Israelites out of Egypt until this very day. I have always moved from one place to another with a tent and a Tabernacle as my dwelling. Yet no matter where I have gone with the Israelites, I have never once complained to Israel’s tribal leaders, the shepherds of my people Israel. I have never asked them, “Why haven’t you built me a beautiful cedar house?”’
Now go and say to my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has declared: I took you from tending sheep in the pasture and selected you to be the leader of my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have destroyed all your enemies from before your eyes. Now I will make your name as famous as anyone who has ever lived on earth! And I will provide a homeland for my people Israel, planting them in a secure place where they will never be disturbed. Evil nations won’t oppress them as they’ve done in the past, starting from the time I appointed judges to rule my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Furthermore, the Lord declares that he will make a house for you – a dynasty of kings!’”
Earlier this week I reflected on David’s prayer of praise after God established him as king. (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/myjourney/2023/05/5-principles-for-prayer-from-david/). Today, I’m more interested in what we see in Nathan’s prayer life. This event is included in both 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17. Nathan was the prophet – God’s spokesman in David’s palace court. We often think of prophets as those who make predictions about the future, but the Old Testament prophet was also recognized as God’s spokesperson. In the palace court, Nathan would have served as David’s spiritual advisor.
So David shares with Nathan his desire to build a “house” for God. Specifically, David wanted a structure that was appropriate to house the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was the symbol of God’s presence among the Israelites, and the cover of the Ark was deemed to be God’s “seat.” From the time Moses had constructed the Ark according to God’s specifications, the Ark was kept inside the Tabernacle except when the Israelites were on the move. The innermost part of the Tabernacle was the “Holy of Holies,” and that’s where the Ark was kept. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and that only happened once each year on the Day of Atonement.
David tells Nathan, “Look, I am living in a beautiful cedar palace, but the Ark of God is out there in a tent!” No doubt David was thinking back to the days when he was living in tents and caves, on the run from Saul. Now that God had established David as king, he was living in a palace. Why shouldn’t the Ark of God have its own palace in which to rest?
When David shares his thoughts with Nathan, Nathan tells him to go ahead and do whatever you have in mind. It’s a common thing for leaders to have people who encourage them to go ahead and do whatever they think best. Common, but dangerous, because no matter who the leader is, they will not be right all the time. (The same is true of all of us, of course, but most of us don’t have the ability to go ahead and do whatever we have in mind.) Nathan wasn’t just being a yes-man; he had the capacity to tell David the hard truth when needed. I think there were two factors which led Nathan to tell David to go ahead. First, the idea seemed to be appropriate; God deserves our devotion. Why wouldn’t it be good to build something to house the Ark?
Second, Nathan knew that the Lord is with you. God had chosen David, led and protected him, and had now established him as king over all Israel. God was surely with David! So if David wanted to do something to honor God, that had to be okay. Right?
Not so much. That same night the Lord said to Nathan, “Go and tell my servant David…’Are you the one to build a house for me to live in?’” God goes through a brief reminder of the history of the Ark and His presence among the Israelites. The Ark had always been in a tent, and God never complained. Why should that change now? And then God goes on to let David know that God was with him, by promising to secure the nation. I will provide a homeland for my people Israel…and I will give you rest from all your enemies.
Then, to top it off, God promises: I will make a house for you – a dynasty of kings! Saul’s family was not established as the dynasty, because Saul had disobeyed God’s commands. So God chose David, and now he promises David that He will establish David’s line. This is not only a reference to his descendants following him as kings of Israel; it is also a Messianic prophecy. And then God tells David that one of his offspring will be the one to “build a house – a temple – for my name” (verse 13).
So what’s the point? First, Nathan walked closely enough to God that God would just speak to him. That same night the Lord said to Nathan… The passage doesn’t say, “When Nathan prayed about this, God said…” It also doesn’t indicate that God waited until Nathan was praying about something else to speak to him. Nathan was attuned to God’s voice so God could just speak to him.
Second, notice that although God was telling Nathan that he was wrong, he didn’t chastise him about it. Nathan didn’t act out of improper motives; he wasn’t just trying to curry favor with the king. Nathan wasn’t being selfish; he wanted to honor both God and the king. So God spoke to him to make it clear that David shouldn’t do whatever he had in mind. And when God spoke, Nathan obeyed.
That’s the third point we see in this passage. Nathan had learned to recognize God’s voice because when God spoke, Nathan obeyed. I’ve had many people ask me over the years, “How do you know when God is speaking to you?”
Many things impact our ability to recognize God’s voice, but one of the primary factors is our willingness to obey when God speaks. If you know God has told you to do something – say, “love your neighbor” or “forgive those who trespass against you” – and you don’t do it, you are hardening your heart. That makes it harder to recognize God’s voice. On the other hand, if we are already doing things that God has commanded, we’re more sensitive to His direction. We become more able to hear because we’re spiritually ready to listen.
When we’re prepared to obey, we’re more likely to recognize God’s voice, because we want to hear what God has to say. We need to be humble enough to know that we don’t have all the answers. After all, if we think we do, we’re not really listening to what God has to say! And a good place to start is by not thinking that we can go ahead and do whatever we have in mind!
Father, thank you for reminding us that you are ready to speak to us if we’re ready to listen. Thank you also for your Word, through which you speak to us each time we read it. You have blessed us with your Holy Spirit, who leads us in the truth. Help us each day to do what you call us to do, and give us hearts that are ready to listen when you speak. Amen.
Written by: OchriO