2 Samuel 7:4-16; 2 Kings 17; 25; Zechariah 8:3-13
We review a lot of history today. So many stories make up a much larger one. That’s one of the truths we’ve been seeing in and through our core stories, isn’t it? All pieces of a whole—part of a much larger story. And the consistency that runs through them is God—who God is, and the call of God for us in covenant relationship with God to be as God is.
You’ll note this morning we’re not just looking at David—stories of David—stories of David’s kingdom, but the whole Davidic dynasty. And if that sounds overwhelming to you, let me just say, I know exactly where you’re coming from! And so we start—well, we start even before David. In the unfolding story we’ve been tracing from Abram and Sarai through the Exodus from Egypt and the wilderness wanderings to the promised land, the children of Israel, now settled in the promised land, are wanting a king. Why? Because the sons of Samuel, their judges—
Okay, time out. When the Israelites settled in Canaan, they settled into a loose confederation of the tribes. And they also settled into a cyclical pattern of disobeying God, facing the consequences of having disobeyed God, crying out to God and having God raise up a judge to save them. So the judges were God-chosen, temporary leaders (often military leaders), men and women. Deborah, Gideon and Samson are perhaps the most well-known.
But the sons of Samuel, judges, “turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Samuel 8:3). And the people said, “We want a king, like everyone else.” Now that’s not what God wanted. In fact, God saw that as pretty much an explicit rejection of God. But nonetheless God said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people.”
So here’s one of the most important things I have to say today—or any day, for that matter. It’s about God. Imagine that! But it’s also about us. God did not (and God does not) insist on what God wants. God insists on honoring the voice of the people. Even when that voice represents the rejection of God. Three times in that passage from 1 Samuel 8, God tells Samuel to listen to the voice of the people.
And here’s another one of the most important things I have to say today—or any day—the second thing, and it’s also about God—and about us. The judges represent God’s leadership. They represent God. But they blow it. Samuel’s sons blew it. They did not represent God. They represented greed; they represented covetousness; they represented envy; they represented selfishness. And so the people chose something else. “We want a king!” The people rejected God because of the way those people supposed to be representing God acted.
Now you might could say God didn’t pick Samuel’s sons (Samuel did)—that Samuel made something that was supposed to be temporary hereditary. But God picked Samuel. And that most important thing to say is not some excuse for the behavior of Samuel’s sons, but the affirmation that God risks being represented by people. Whether that’s judges, as here in this story, or priests—because this same story unfolded with the priest Eli and his sons back in 1 Samuel 2—or whether that’s us today, God risks being represented by people, and God risks the consequences of being represented by people. How often, after all, is God rejected because of the way people representing God act? How often do people reject God because of the way the church acts? Nonetheless. That’s the second very important thing—nonetheless.
Now there is some awe-fully subtle stuff going on here. Three times, we noted, God says “Listen to the voice of the people,” and twice we hear the voice of the people. First, they want a king because the judges (God’s representatives) are not acting as God’s representatives. “Okay. Listen to them,” says God, “but make sure they understand the consequences of what they want.” And Samuel lays out the consequences—clearly, explicitly, and the people insist nonetheless: “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19-20).
And so God, for the third time (1 Samuel 8:7, 9, 22), says, “Listen to them. Give them what they’re asking for. They’ll get everything they don’t know they’re asking for, but never mind that. Listen to them.” So God, in the perfect completeness of the number three, will always listen to the people. God will always listen to our voice. God will always respect our voice—even when it speaks rejection.
Now the people only state their desire for a king twice, and the rationale goes from the more understandable and acceptable (“Look these judges are unscrupulous, immoral, selfish power mongers. Your plan’s not working, God. Can we try another?”) to the less so (“We just want to be like all the other nations”). But there’s not a third demand for a king. The people are left with an incomplete voice. To complete our demands, we are left to either demand a king again (for the third time—maybe even for worse reasons!), or not. There’s a chance we could go back to asking for God. Yes?
We reread that second demand: “We are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19-20). Well, who’s been doing that? Who’s been going before them: a pillar of fire, a cloud, a guide, a provider, and sustainer? God, of course. And who’s been fighting their battles for them? God has. So there’s a possibility—isn’t there—slight perhaps, but a possibility—that the third time the people speak, they will choose God.
Well, they get Saul. We’re not going to get into Saul. That’s a whole nother story! The end of which, as it’s written, is basically God not liking Saul … which doesn’t seem quite fair … having been the one to pick Saul. And in this story of Saul, there’s no dramatic God-encounter, profound conversion, subsequent repentance, inversion of priorities, symbolic name change and the introduction of king Paul (Acts 9:1-31; 13:9). Instead there’s death and David.
And David has all kinds of great stories: stories about the shepherd boy, the harp and the slingshot, the story of Goliath, of David the warrior—that whole “Saul has killed his thousands and David his tens of thousands” thing, David as military hero, conqueror, winner, David marrying the princess, becoming king, centralizing power in Jerusalem—inaugurating the golden age everyone looks back to, the lover of God, the singer, the dancer—a man after God’s own heart.
Yet a man who made mistakes: big, bad mistakes—we’re talking adultery, murder. Even a man after God’s own heart—the king whose successes are legendary yet whose family life broke his heart—the king to whom everyone looks back with reverence and longing—the king to whom every other is compared.
You see, it’s not just that bad people represent God and distort the picture. It’s that anyone does—everyone does. Even David.
David’s son and heir, Solomon, continued the golden age of Israel’s monarchy, continued centralizing leadership and power. But sustaining a golden age required high taxes (probably don’t hear that preached too often!). And when Solomon died, the people appealed to his son and heir, Reheboam, to lower taxes. Well, he didn’t. In fact, he said he would raise them even higher, and the ten northern tribes rebelled and thus was born the northern kingdom (Israel). And by virtue of the birth of the northern kingdom was born also the southern kingdom, comprised of the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin (1 Kings 12; 2 Chronicles 10).
At first, up in the north, it all looked good. But over time the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. In the pursuit of personal wealth, people forgot God’s wish for people to be a part of God’s work of blessing all people, and wealth became its own end (you know sometimes with Scripture you really have to work to find parallels with today!). And the prophets as early as Elijah and to the time of Amos and Hosea were ignored … and are still ignored.
It’s not as if the southern kingdom was that much better. There would be a good king every now and then, but they were the exception not the rule. And Micah and Nahum and first Isaiah and Jeremiah all proclaimed the word and will of God and within the momentum of culture and politics were (and are) ignored.
And so we enter a time when the story of the monarchy and the story of Israel—the story of God with God’s people—was more defined by the words of prophets than priests or kings. They had (and have) much to say to power, much to say about justice, much to say about the responsibility a people have for the least of those among them—words that were and are reminders of what was to be—interpretations of both what is and of God’s will and how the two do and don’t intersect.
In the history books, we read that the northern kingdom fell to Assyria in 722 B.C.E. The southern kingdom fell to Babylon in 587 B.C.E. And that was the end of the Davidic monarchy—the political end of the Davidic dynasty. We enter a time of defeat and exile. Even upon returning to Jerusalem after Persia defeated Babylon in 539 B.C.E. the monarchy was not restored. And then there was Greece. And then there was Rome. And yet, throughout the exile, through the return to the rubble of Jerusalem and the overlordship of Persia and then Greece and then Rome, the words of the prophets continued to resonate. The word of God continued to resonate.
Look to the future, prisoners of hope (Zechariah’s phrase there)—prisoners of hope, called to care for the least of these—called to establish justice—called to place your trust in God—called to keep looking ahead for what seems absolutely impossible. And so in the ashes of the Davidic dynasty, there is the growing hope and the sustained expectation of the coming of the Messiah—of the line of David. And what’s the hope? What’s the expectation? Is it of someone to go before us and fight our battles—someone to make us like everyone else—even someone like David—still a rejection of God—a distortion of God? Maybe. Yes. Or maybe the hope begins to shift to one who will represent God without distortions—who will bring the truth of God to the world in a never before seen fullness and integrity—someone to make us unlike everyone else.
And the story goes on toward the dream of no one in need for the most basic of needs—of little boys and girls playing safely in the streets and of parents not scared to death—of old men and old women sitting in rocking chairs on porches in the cool of the evening—of all men and all women dreaming the dream and working toward the dream.
When David sought to build God a house, Nathan spoke the words of God to David: “Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 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…. I will not take my steadfast love from him …. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:11-16).
So one final (the third) most important thing I have to say today—again, or any day! Here it is—the core of this core story in the primal narrative of Scripture—the fundamental affirmations we make about our God: this is the story of what God does with the story when the story goes astray. And don’t all of ours? This is what God does with us when we go astray (even as representatives of God). And don’t we all?—when we ask for what is essentially a rejection of God. Yes God always says, “Listen to them. Give them what they want. They’re never going to want me as long as they’re looking at everyone else wanting what they’ve got. So give them what they want, and then—then,” here it is—you ready? “then we’ll make the best of it. We’ll work for good within all the circumstances. We’ll work for good within the inevitable pain and grief and suffering. As bleak and dangerous, as stressful and fearful, as frustrating and distorted as things get, we’ll work for good. And we won’t stop working until all creation is redeemed.”
Now that’s prayer, isn’t it? That’s faith. That’s our story. And what a story it is.