1092) David (part two of two)

David, 1623, Gian Lorenzo Bernini  (1598-1680)

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     (…continued)  King Saul reluctantly allowed David to fight Goliath, offering him all the best armor and weaponry.  David declined everything, taking only his slingshot and five smooth stones.  Goliath was irritated to see David coming at him with not much more than the shirt on his back, telling David he would be soon feeding him to the birds.  David replied in one of the greatest verses of faith in the Bible:  “You come against me with sword and spear, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, who you have defied.”  As a teenager, David was already at his best.

     You know the rest of the story.  One shot with one smooth stone was all it took, as David planted it directly into Goliath’s forehead, knocking him to the ground.  David ran forward, picked up Goliath’s sword, and cut off the giant’s head.  With their hero dead, the army of the Philistines fled, and the threat was eliminated.

     Saul had already become a wicked king in God’s sight.  David’s great victory made Saul even worse.  Saul resented David’s success and became jealous of his popularity.  Instead of being grateful to David, Saul tried to kill him.  David had to run for his life.

     For the next 20 years David lived in exile and on the run.  He formed his own guerrilla army of 400 tough guys– outlaws, adventurers, and rebels.  They lived in the wilderness, picking fights here and there with larger armies, sometimes against Israel’s enemies, sometimes even against King Saul’s army.  David was the anointed King of Israel, but for two decades he and his men were without a country.  No one could get the best of them and they had some support from the people in the country, but they had no official welcome anywhere.  It was in this context that David wrote many of the Psalms that prayed for protection from the enemies who were seeking to take his life.

     During these long hard years David had a couple opportunities to take a short cut to power.  Those years on the run and in hiding made him an expert at sneaking around, and twice he got past the king’s guards and close enough for an easy assassination.  But even though Saul had often tried to kill David, David refused to kill who he called ‘the Lord’s anointed.’  Saul also had been anointed to lead, and David would not be the one to kill one whom God had chosen.  One time, David even cut off a piece of Saul’s uniform to show how close he had been.  The next day from a safe distance away, he called out to Saul and showed him the piece of uniform, dramatically declaring his loyalty.  This was David at his noblest, and even Saul admitted that David was the better man.  For a brief time after that, Saul stopped hunting David.  

     Eventually, Saul was killed in battle and David became king, now nearing the age of forty.  David quickly established his authority.  He was already immensely popular, but there were a couple challenges to his rule with which he had to contend.  He then secured Israel’s borders, defeated their enemies, and around the year 1000 B.C., David established the city of Jerusalem as his capitol.  

     Then, when finally at peace, living in security, and with unchallenged authority, David began to make some of his biggest mistakes.  He could discipline and command an entire army and nation, but he allowed his family to get out of control.  He could write prayers like the 23rd Psalm of spiritual depth and devotion that remain unsurpassed after 3,000 years; but he could also take another man’s wife, get her pregnant, and then arrange to have the husband murdered in battle to get him out of the way and avoid a scene.  And this David, who acted so nobly in sparing King Saul’s life, would take the most violent and vicious revenge on his enemies.

     There is no way to excuse the outrageous sins of this Biblical hero.  He was in many ways a far bigger sinner than you or I will ever be.  But even in this there is a lesson on grace, because even in his greatest sin, David knew how to confess his sins, admit his failure, submit to God’s awful punishment, and then, in the end, he knew what it was to receive God’s gracious forgiveness.

     David’s greatest legacy was that he knew how to pray, and is credited with the writing most of the Bible’s Psalms.  One of the greatest is the prayer David prayed after the prophet Nathan condemned his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the arranged murder of her husband.  We know it as the 51st Psalm, which contains the words of today’s prayer (below).  God heard that prayer and forgave David’s sin.

     We can learn not only from the faith of the Old Testaments heroes, a faith that can make our own look small and weak, but we can learn also from their greatest sins, which at times can make our own sins seem small.  Even with feeble faith or after shocking sins, we can learn from David that what is most important of all is to keep our eyes on God’s grace and love.

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David’s fall should put those who have not fallen on their guard, and save from despair those who have.

— St. Augustine

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I Samuel 17:45  —  David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”

II Samuel 12:13  —  David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Acts 13:22  —  (Paul said), “After removing Saul, he made David their king.  God testified concerning him:  ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.'”

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PSALM 51:10-12:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me.  Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free spirit.

–David, King of Israel

1091) David (part one of two)

King David Playing the Harp: Gerrit van Honthorst (1611), Central Museum, Utrecht

King David Playing the Harp, 1611, Gerrit van Honthorst

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     David was Israel’s greatest king.  The nation reached the heights of its power under David’s son Solomon.  But Solomon also sowed the seeds of the nation’s destruction, and within a generation after Solomon died it had been divided and devastated by civil war.  David, however, inherited a troubled and weak collection of separate tribes, and built a nation.

     Three hundred years after David died, the prophet Isaiah (55:3) was still talking about the everlasting covenant God made with the people for the sake of David.  God said he made David the leader and commander that he was, and that because of him, Israel would be a witness to all the peoples of the earth.  That prophecy was fulfilled in a descendant of David, Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, called the ‘city of David’ because it was his own birthplace and childhood home.  For centuries, a descendant of David ruled over Israel.  From the birth of Jesus and onward for all eternity, that divine descendant of David would rule over all heaven and earth.

     David’s courage, nobility, and faith is as great as that of anyone in the Bible; but also great were his sins of revenge, adultery, and even murder.  His leadership as the head of an army and as the king of a nation was incredible and a nearly complete success.  But in his leadership in his family and in his authority over his own children, he was a huge failure. His virtues were extraordinary and his vices were outrageous.  David would get an A in politics, but a D– in family values.

     David’s life is a testimony to God’s goodness.  God indeed made him what he was, bringing him out of nowhere, giving him blessing upon blessing, and even blessing the nation through him and because of him.  And when David failed, we get a clear lesson in the greatness of God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness and patience.  Anyone despairing over their own moral failures can look at David’s life and see how great God’s forgiveness can be and how much God is willing to forgive one who will repent of their sins.

     The story of David began with God sending the prophet Samuel to Jesse, a farmer in Bethlehem.  God had told Samuel to anoint one of the sons of Jesse to be the next king of Israel, and that God would guide Samuel to the right one.  God had rejected King Saul so completely that he said the throne would not pass on the king’s son in the usual way, but that someone else would be found.  So Jesse brought out seven sons, from the oldest to the youngest, and each was shown to Samuel.  Each time, Jesse assumes ‘this must be the one,’ and each one is passed over by Samuel.  Samuel had to ask if there are any more sons, and only then did Jesse mention the baby of he family, David.  Even then Jesse hesitated, saying the boy was out tending sheep, as if there would be no need to bother with that little runt.  Samuel had to insist, and only then was the next king of Israel brought forward, chosen, and anointed– even though still a boy.  Samuel said to a surprised Jesse, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

     Being anointed to be the next king did not yet put one on the throne.  A king was king for life, no matter how bad he was, and King Saul was still very much alive.  So the future King David went back to tending his father’s sheep.  Along with being a shepherd, David had learned to play the harp.  He would at times be called on to play for King Saul to calm his troubled nerves.  Saul knew nothing of the anointing.

     Sometime later, King Saul and his army were at war with the army of the Philistines.  The two armies were in a stalemate, in position on either side of a valley, each unwilling to attack the other.  On the side of the Philistines was the nine foot tall soldier, Goliath.  Each day, Goliath would come out and taunt the army of Israel.  He would offer to fight any one of the Israeli warriors, and winner would take all– the entire army of the losing side in the duel would surrender.  But what normal soldier could ever hope to have a chance against such a giant?

     Three of David’s older brothers were in Saul’s army, and Jesse’s farm was not very far from the front lines.  Jesse was concerned about his sons getting enough to eat, and would send David to them with extra provisions.  One time when David was there, he heard Goliath’s challenge.

     It angered David that no one was willing to trust God and accept the challenge, so he said he would.  His older brothers were irritated with what seemed to be David’s arrogant foolishness.  But David was soon to show that it was not foolishness and it was not arrogance.  Rather, it was true courage, based on a solid faith in God.  (continued…)

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Isaiah 55:3  —  Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.  I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.

I Samuel 16:7  —  The Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height…  The Lord does not look at the things people look at.  People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Luke 2:11  —  Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

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PSALM 25:1-2, 4-5, 16-18, 20…21 (a Psalm of David):

In you, Lord my God, I put my trust.

I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame,
    nor let my enemies triumph over me…

Show me your ways, Lordteach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.

Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish.
Look on my affliction and my distress and take away all my sins.

Guard my life and rescue me… My hope, Lord, is in you.

1046) Chosen (a)

     British journalist William Ewer (1885-1977) once wrote a silly, but profound little poem using only eight words:  

How odd

Of God

To choose

The Jews.  

     A lady once expressed a similar thought in a Bible study I was leading when she said, “Everything in the Old Testament centers so much on Israel that it looks to me like if you weren’t an Israelite, you weren’t important.”  It is true that the story and the actions of God do seem to focus only on the Jews and their quest for the promised land of Israel.  But it is not true to say that no one else matters.  The descendants of Abraham were certainly chosen by God, but there was always two sides to that ‘choseness.’  The Jews were chosen for special blessings; that fact cannot be missed by even a casual reading of the Bible.  But they were also chosen for a certain responsibility: to be a blessing to all others.  This is what God intended from the very beginning.

     The very beginning of this choseness comes not long after the beginning of the Bible itself.  In Genesis 12 God called Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, saying to him (verses 2-3):

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you.  I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.  

God choose Israel not to the exclusion of all the other people of the world, but as a way to reach out to all other nations and races.

     However, things did not always go according to the plan.  From the very beginning, even after being freed from slavery by the miracles of God, the people were ungrateful, quick to complain, and lacking in faith.  Far from being a blessing to all the peoples of the earth, the Jews seem determined to bring God’s curses down upon themselves; and on more than one occasion God does bring his wrath down upon them.  But God continued to work out his plans through these difficult people, people that in many ways resemble all people of every time and place.  

     As we become more familiar with the story, we begin to see ourselves in it quite clearly.  These stories were not just recorded to tell us about an ancient people, but are there to tell us about ourselves.  We also have been blessed in so many ways, we also (now as the church), are intended to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth, but we also usually do more complaining about our problems than giving thanks for our blessings.  Churches often get so bogged down in their own problems that it is difficult for them to be much of a blessing to anyone.  If you read the story of the Bible from beginning to end, you will get to the story of Jesus, and find that in him, all the peoples of all nations and races have certainly been blessed.  The message that started with one man and then one family and then one nation, has indeed become a world-wide faith, spread to the far corners of the earth by the followers of Jesus.

     For whatever reason, that did not yet happen on an international scale in Old Testament times, but that is not to say it never happened.  There are many stories of other people, not Jews, who saw the activity of God on behalf of his people, and came to faith in Jehovah, the God who created the whole universe.  

     II Kings 5 tells just such a story.  It begins with a foreigner, a non-Jew, even an enemy of Israel (verse one):  “Naaman was the commander of the army of the King of Aram.”  Aram was Israel’s enemy.  This same verse says that the Lord had given victory to Aram through this general Naaman– victory over Israel.  God often punished Israel by giving victory to their enemies.  God had given this enemy general victory over his own people, even though this general did not yet know, or acknowledge this God.

     But Naaman had a problem.  He had leprosy, a dreadful disease for which there was no cure.  His days of soldiering would be limited.  In fact, it is surprising he was not already exiled to a leper colony.  That is what they did in those days at the first sign of the disease, so much did people fear its spreading, even though it was rarely contagious.  But Naaman was a great and valuable general, so he was not (yet) cast aside.

     Naaman had slaves.  Many people did in those days.  When you went to war you killed people and you took slaves.  One of his slaves was a young Jewish girl who had been taken captive.  It didn’t benefit her very much to be one of the chosen people.  Being chosen did not mean being exempt from hardship and tragedy.  It might even mean being subjected to special suffering to fulfill a special purpose, as seems to be the case here.  If it wasn’t for this young Jewish slave girl, we would not know this story.  There wouldn’t even be a story.

     The little slave girl felt sorry for her owner, if you can imagine that.  We can probably guess that she is a slave because of Naaman’s army– that her village was destroyed and that her parents were killed or perhaps also taken into slavery– all because of Naaman.  But she has pity on her owner, and offers an idea of where he might get some help.

     “Blessed to be a blessing,” God said in Genesis 12 when he chose Abraham for the promise.  This slave girl is bringing a blessing to her enemy.  This is the kind of thing God had in mind.  The New Testament, not yet written at the time of this story, tells us to “Love our enemies and do good to those that harm us.”  That is what this girl is doing.  She said to her mistress, who passed the word on to her husband Naaman, that there was a prophet of God in Israel who could cure leprosy.

     Naaman told this to his king, who sent a letter and some money to the king of Israel, saying “Cure Naaman of leprosy.”  Apparently the king of Aram did not know the difference between a king and a prophet, and the king of Israel, who was not able to cure leprosy, got worried.  He thought the other king’s plan was to pick a fight so that Naaman could defeat his army again, and take back some more of his citizens to be slaves.

    Elisha, the prophet that the young slave girl was referring to, got wind of this all and told the king to send Naaman over to his house.  The relieved king did so happily.  Naaman arrived, and after Elisha put him through a bit of rigamarole to humble him, Elisha healed him.  And then the healthy Naaman said, “Now I know that there is no god in all the world except this God.”  That was what God had in mind way back in Genesis 12, that all people could know Him.  (continued…)

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Isaiah 12:4  —  In that day you will say: “Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted.

Isaiah 55:5  —  Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.

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O Lord, who has warned us that you will require much from those to whom much is given:  Grant that we, who have inherited great spiritual blessings, may strive together more abundantly, by our prayers, our labors, and our gifts, to extend to those who do not yet know what we so richly enjoy; to the fulfillment of your holy will and the salvation of all humankind; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

–Author unknown, fifth century

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