What’s Fair

July 18, 2018

I liked very much Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour. One of the characters is Sister Jeanne, a small, cheery nun in the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. Spending every day nursing poor people in 1930s New York, she’s very familiar with suffering. Here’s what she believes about its unfairness:

Sister Jeanne believed with the conviction of an eye witness that all human loss would be restored: the grieving child would have her mother again; the dead infant would find robust health; suffering, sorrow, accident, and loss would all be amended in heaven. She believed this because, because (and she only possessed the wherewithal to explain this to children—trying to say it to angry or grieving or bitter adults only left her tongue-tied), because fairness demanded it.

It was, to her mind, a simple proposition. The madness with which suffering was dispersed in the world defied logic. There was nothing else like it for unevenness. Bad luck, bad health, bad timing. Innocent children were afflicted as often as bad men. Young mothers were struck down even as old ones fretfully lingered. Good lives ended in confusion or despair or howling devastation. The fortunate went blissfully about their business until that moment when fortune vanished—a knock on the door, a cough, a knife flash, a brief bit of inattention. A much-longed-for baby slid into the world only to grow blue and limp in its mother’s arms. Another arrived lame, or ill-formed, or simply too hungry for a frail woman already overwhelmed. There was a child in the next parish with a skull so twisted his mouth couldn’t close, and every breath he took, every word he spoke, even his childish laughter, rattled through dry and swollen lips. Another with a birthmark like a purple caul. Blindness. Beatings. Broken or bring bones. Accident, decay. Cruelty of nature. Cruelty of bad men. Idiocy, madness.

There was no accounting for it.

No accounting for how general it was, how arbitrary.

Sister Jeanne believed that fairness demanded this chaos be righted. Fairness demanded that grief should find succor, that wounds should heal, insult and confusion find recompense and certainty, that every living person God had made should not, willy-nilly, be forever unmade.

”You know what’s fair and what isn’t, don’t you?” Sister Jeanne would ask the sick child, the grieving orphan, Sally herself when she was old enough to understand the question. And us.

“And how do you know?”

Sister Jeanne would put a fingertip to the child’s forehead, to the child’s beating heart. “Because God put the knowledge in you before you were born. So you’d know fairness when you see it. So you’d know He intends to be fair.”


“Who’s the dumbest boy in your class?” she once asked us. This was in the Hempstead house where we were young. “And if the teacher’s dividing up sweets and gives him only one while everyone else gets two, what will he say? He’ll say it’s not fair, won’t he? If you call him out playing ball when everyone can see he’s safe by a mile, what will he say—dumb as he is in school? He’ll say it’s not fair, see? And how does he know? Did he learn what’s fair from a book? Did he take a test? No, he did not.”




Breathe Deep and Practice Kindness

July 17, 2018

We went to see the Mr. Rogers movie this week (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”) and learned that Fred was an uncanny person—no different in real life than on TV—who remembered vividly the vulnerabilities children feel. He had been a bullied fat kid himself. Deeply dedicated to kindness, he set out to use a medium not known for kindness—television–as a national service to comfort children.

I found the movie very touching, particularly because I’ve half-forgotten that kindness is normal. If Mr. Rogers seems weird—and sometimes he does–it’s because our world has gotten so weird.

This was the message behind my niece Libby Echeverria’s “Perspective” on our local public radio station. It’s a lovely piece, worth hearing. She describes a series of encounters in her neighborhood coffee shop: an interracial gathering of young men comparing tattoos, and a homeless man who wanders in brandishing a feather. She half-expected trouble, but in fact, she was surprised to see people treating each other with dignity and thoughtfulness. The young men pulled out Bibles and launched into a study of Philippians. An older man got a chair for the homeless man. “I realized that through breathing the toxic air of our country these days, I have developed an unconscious bias that I can’t trust people to do the right thing. I am on edge….”

Mass media and politics and social media bring out the troll in us. We need to breathe deep and practice kindness. Or so Mr. Rogers would tell us.


Cheers and Amen

July 2, 2018

a year-long, 50 state adventure 

by Dean and Mindy Anderson

This may be the ultimate road trip. Dean and Mindy (friends of mine, and otherwise quite ordinary, sane, middle-aged and middle-class people) had dreamed of setting off across America in their aging van, to spend a whole year sleeping on couches, eating fast food, and visiting a church and a bar in every state in America. Cheers and Amen is the story of how they did it. It’s a cheerful, whimsical account, polite, lacking put-downs but laden with humor and healthy curiosity. In every state they asked people, “What makes a good church? What makes a good bar?” They were seeking clues to deeper questions, such as: why are so many young people disinterested in organized religion? How do we make “outsiders” feel welcome? And, what’s really going on in American churches?

Reading their book gives you ample opportunity to chew these questions over, but for me, the best part of Cheers and Amen is the chance to accompany Dean and Mindy on their journey. You get to know some unusual corners of America, such as the rescue missions in Las Vegas and New Orleans, a church that devotes its summers to feeding hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and a church that is also a gym and invites people to dance classes. Dean and Mindy didn’t go looking for the exotic in American churches (or bars) but they found some of it along the way. It’s fun to travel with them, and as you do,  you get to know two quirky, funny, unique personalities.

Religious Freedom

June 27, 2018

IMG_1146A few weeks ago I was in New Orleans for a wedding, which took place at the Old Ursuline Convent, built in 1745. The convent displayed a letter (see above) written to them by Thomas Jefferson just a year after the Louisiana Purchase.

The nuns at the convent were fearful that the barbarian Americans (mostly Protestants) who had taken power from the French would confiscate their property and put an end to their work. Jefferson answered as follows:

Washington, May 15, 1804

To the Soeur Therese de St. Xavier Farjon Superior, and the Nuns of the order of St. Ursula at New Orleans

I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and it’s furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up it’s younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.

I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was an Enlightenment deist, and no particular friend to Roman Catholic religious life. It says something for his character that he answered the letter so civilly, reassuring the nuns on two grounds. One was the constitution, which guaranteed religious liberty. Jefferson says that the convent has the right to its physical property, and to organize its community life according to its own rules, without interference. He goes further in stating that its charitable work will ensure its support from the government, since all citizens whatever their religious point of view will appreciate it.

The sisters can rest easy because the law protects them; but they can also rest easy because their good works will be seen and appreciated by people of all persuasions. It’s a subtle response. There is perhaps some interplay between the two points: for when religious institutions are known for doing good to society, that strengthens the legal protections they enjoy. Jefferson does not say, but one can certainly think, that if the convent became so ingrown and narrow that it did no good for anybody outside the convent, the legal protections might prove to be much less robust in practice.

Today many believers (not just Christians, but Muslims too, and others) feel threatened, rather like those Ursuline sisters. Having lost the culture wars, they fear being compelled to surrender their consciences and participate fully in the reigning liberal regime. It’s no idle threat: bakers may be compelled to use their art to celebrate ceremonies they consider immoral; doctors may be compelled to oversee abortion or suicide; religious organizations may be compelled to hire staff who don’t share their beliefs. Religious people offer a strong defense, based on the American Constitution, for their right to continue their unique way of life. Some may feel that is all that needs to be said: The Constitution says it, that settles it. They would like to pursue a purely legal strategy.

But the Constitution won’t help most religious people in the world. It won’t do you a bit of good in China. And even in America, the Constitution’s protections will be far more vigorous if believers are known for contributing to the common good. I believe that we do. However, I suspect that a very strong and growing minority of Americans don’t. They don’t believe that religious institutions and religious people contribute to the common good. Therein, I suspect, lies the greatest threat to religious liberty. We should do everything in our powers to change it.




June 26, 2018

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

–Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

I’ve been thinking about periods of darkness. Our day seems to be one such—a time of casual lying, proud callousness, deliberate unkindness. A very large plurality, and maybe a majority of Americans has embraced fear and cruelty against “outsiders.” I had hoped that this was just a tantrum, and that Americans would get over it. Maybe so, but I’m beginning to fear we’re in this for the long haul.

It’s horrifying to me, but I’m reminded that America has been through previous periods of darkness.

One was in the 1830s, when the Cherokee and other Indian nations were evicted from their property in the Southeast, mainly Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, and force-marched by government soldiers to Oklahoma. Thousands died on the way. During the same period, slaveholders throughout the South grew so aggressive and vociferous that anyone who opposed slavery feared for their life.

Then came the Civil War, when Americans grew so polarized that they organized themselves to kill each other, in vast, mechanized swarms of men. The heroes of the time were those who slaughtered other Americans.

Following the war, after a brief period of Reconstruction, the right to vote was violently taken away from African Americans in the South. Thousands were killed if they resisted. From about 1870 to 1960—ninety years—violence kept blacks in subservient status throughout the South, and much of the North as well. Those who resisted were likely to be murdered.

Meanwhile, in the West, Native Americans and Chinese received more or less the same treatment—with the tacit approval of almost all white citizens.

We have dark periods in our national past. In almost every case, the worst offenses were broadly accepted—hardly noted. Such offenses are only possible if the general population is anesthetized to them, becoming instinctually tribal and comfortably cruel.

Note, however, that in the darkness great lights were kindled. The abolitionist movement grew up in the 1830s, perhaps the most admirable group of (mainly) white activists we have known.

In the horror of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln found his voice.

And out of the repression of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow regime, we got Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement.

Our most wonderful citizens and movements came out of the darkness. They demonstrated amazing courage and remarkable faith. The darkness did not overcome the light. Out of the dark, the light shone at its brightest.

Persistence of Light

June 21, 2018

I just finished reading John Hoyte’s memoir, Persistence of Light. As many of you know, I have been on a bandwagon urging people to write their memoirs—I am beginning to write my own–and John’s work gives me an excellent reason to carry on the crusade. The only problem is that the events of John’s life are so extraordinarily interesting, compared to anybody else’s, they may intimidate the rest of us.

At the risk of simplification I will divide Persistence of Light into three parts of interest: Japanese prison camp, Hannibal’s elephant, and everything else. First, Japanese prison camp.

John grew up in China as the child of missionary parents. His father, a medical doctor, seems to have been of that enterprising, open-minded, omni-capable type you still run into in far-off parts of the world. With such a parent, John and his five siblings lived lives of considerable adventure—sometimes self-initiated, as when the whole family spontaneously got into a rowboat and rowed out to a British cruiser that had anchored off the coast. Some of their adventures came unbidden, since China was at war with Japan, and Communists were fighting Nationalists. China was a dangerous place, though John’s parents insulated their children from most fears.

However, in 1940 John’s parents were called to an emergency hospital assignment 1,300 miles inland. They left their six children at the coastal boarding school they were attending at Chefoo. When war with Japan erupted in 1941, the students were put into a prison camp, along with other resident aliens, adults as well as children. This was the same prison camp where Eric Liddell, of Chariots of Fire fame, was imprisoned and died of a brain tumor. John knew him well, for Liddell took a great interest in the camp’s children.

The prison camp inmates were not tormented or abused, but they suffered from hunger and cold and crowding. The worst deprivation for John was parental. He was eight years old when his mother and father left for inland China, and he was not to see them for five years. During the war, they had almost no communication. John’s older siblings were with him, but life in both boarding school and prison camp kept them mostly separated. Then, as the final blow, came news that his mother had died. It was unthinkably devastating. He would never see her again.

John’s telling of liberation at the hands of American soldiers is extraordinarily exhilarating. Then came the slow and confusing reestablishment of ordinary life—finding their father in turbulent, chaotic post-war China, returning to an England they hardly knew, and finding their way without the guiding light of their mother. John’s early years were both extraordinarily stimulating and joyful—with music and art and adventure—and horrifyingly traumatic. It is a hopeful reminder that trauma is not destiny. He emerged, somehow, as a bright, curious, open-minded and adventurous man, a leader who organized teams around his (sometimes) eccentric vision.

That brings us to Hannibal’s elephant. While at Cambridge University, John developed an interest in the controversies surrounding the route Hannibal took over the Alps with his elephants, invading Rome. Several possibilities were hotly debated. John, studying the ancient documents, got a small university grant to take a student team to climb the relevant passes and see for themselves. A few years later, when John was in the working world, he was inspired to borrow an elephant from the Turin zoo, and recreate (sort of) Hannibal’s epic journey. It was an inspired stunt that got him a seven-page feature in Life Magazine, and an appearance on the well-known TV show To Tell the Truth, where he won $500, more than doubling his life savings. He tells the whole adventure in great detail.

Such an expedition may be a lark, but it requires a lot of thoughtful organization and leadership. This is somewhat typical of John: he has quirky inspirations that require others’ participation, and the leadership skills to bring a team together.

Part three, “everything else,” centers on John’s career in Silicon Valley, where he joined Hewlett Packard in its generous early days, and later launched his own start-up. That business, though it never flew to the moon in the way that storied Silicon Valley start-ups did, survives to the present day. Leading a start-up is not altogether unlike taking an elephant over the Alps, it seems.

In the same period, John’s interest in philosophical  and religious questions, in art and literature and music, opened him up to the San Francisco cultural scene, from the Beats, to the hippies, to the Vietnam rebels. Mostly, it appears, he was inspired to listen and learn. His wife Alma had been to Francis Schaeffer’s l’Abri, a refuge for religious searchers in the Swiss Alps. Imitating that, she and John organized eclectic weekly gatherings in their home. They opened their lives to many diverse people, including, for one Christmas meal, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver.

I am leaving out quite a number of interesting vignettes, including the tragic death of Alma to cancer, and John’s subsequent—and sudden!—marriage to the poet Luci Shaw. Very few people have so many interesting things to write about. That, truthfully, is what makes Persistence of Light attractive to people who don’t know John.

Given that most people have less fascinating material to work with, should they write a memoir? I believe so. I’m motivated by the fact that my maternal grandfather, William Sutherland, dictated a 20-page memoir late in life. I only wish he had left us ten times as much. My own parents wrote nothing, and I am left with questions that I now have no one to ask.

You don’t know exactly what may come out when you sit down with a blank sheet. Whatever appears, however, will have an audience. Your children and grandchildren may not immediately find your thoughts of interest, but sooner or later somebody will want to know what the old coot had to say. And what more important things are you doing, than passing on your memories, your thoughts, your values and your faith?

Persistence of Light by John Hoyte is available at Amazon.com.

Cruelty and the Law

June 19, 2018

I’ve been surprised by the controversy over separating children from their parents at the border. Not surprised by the cruelty. Surprised that evangelical leaders have spoken against it.

I thought there was nothing that evangelicals couldn’t stomach. I thought, if hush payoffs to porn stars don’t lead Christians to temper their tub-thumping enthusiasm for Trump, nothing will. But I failed to account for the appeal of children.

It remains to be seen whether the criticisms Republicans and evangelicals have levied against the policy of tearing children from their mothers’ arms will lead to any larger reevaluation. Trump supporters are very strong on the importance of obeying the law. (This doesn’t apply to sagebrush rebels who drive federal agents off public lands at gunpoint, but never mind, none of us is entirely consistent.) Jeff Sessions led the evangelical charge with his comments that Romans 13 instructs us that God has empowered government to enforce the law. In his worldview, the Law is all. It justifies anything.

As any moderately well-instructed Bible interpreter knows, Romans 13 tells us that God has ordained government for the purpose of order, and therefore its laws deserve our obedience. Except, of course, when they don’t. When the law tells us to go against our faith, we are supposed to disobey it.

David Brooks writes in Monday’s New York Times that conservatives have consistently warned that big government leads to situations like this, where the Law becomes inflexible, inhuman, and bureaucratically obsessed with observance. What Trump and Sessions are doing isn’t conservatism. It’s certainly not Christian. I’ll leave it to you to name it.








For Teachers and Other Curious People

May 18, 2018

My friend Darrel Falk (biology prof at Pt. Loma Nazarene University) has created a series of short videos offering evidence for evolutionary creation. They are even-tempered and informative, and would be good for high school or college students struggling with questions about evolution and creation. Each one is only six or seven minutes long.

Here are  the links:  Part 1.  Part 2.  Part 3.   To access more just Google YouTube and Falk, Coming to Peace with Science.

David: Father

May 5, 2018

This is the sixth in a series on the life of David and David’s Son. 

The crisis began not with a spectacular crime—with adultery, or embezzlement, or child abuse–but with a failing everybody can relate to. David didn’t want to go to work.

In those days a king’s primary responsibility was leading the army. David was not only a skilled fighter, he had always been an eager one. From the days when he jumped at the chance to take on Goliath, he had been fearless and ready to fight. But not now. Springtime was the usual time for armies to take the field, but on this occasion David stayed home. He sent Joab, his top general, into battle with the Ammonites, and remained in Jerusalem.

Perhaps he was depressed. He had accomplished everything he set out to do. He had outlasted Saul, he had defeated the Philistines, he had united the tribes, he had built a palace in Jerusalem. The adrenaline rush was over. David had no more mountains to climb. God had turned down his bid to build a temple. Perhaps his future looked like a dull gray haze, more of the same, forever.

Then, on a sleepless night, walking on the roof, he saw a beautiful woman, Bathsheba. She was the wife of one of his bravest fighters, Uriah, who just happened to be on the battlefield, where David should be. David sent for Bathsheba, they spent the night. It’s doubtful whether Bathsheba had any choice when the king summoned her to his bedroom. Later she sent a message: “I am pregnant.”

That did pose a problem, though not a very big one. In the ancient world, women were disposable, and kings were the ultimate disposers. David had plenty of women. During the seven years he spent in Hebron during the civil war, he had six sons by six different wives. When he settled in Jerusalem he added more wives and concubines, so many and so inconsequential they are not even considered worth naming. (2 Samuel 4:13) It’s very unlikely that anybody would have questioned David’s adultery with Bathsheba. The servants knew all about it, of course, and others probably did too. Nobody said a word. Men do this kind of thing, and you don’t question royalty.

Even the pregnancy could be bluffed through. If you read your European royal history you know that there are lots of affairs and lots of illicit babies, but somehow they all get stuffed in cracks. Nobody seems to notice. Royal life goes on. I presume David could have let Uriah figure out what to do with a wife who gave birth to a child that didn’t look like him. He wouldn’t, if he were wise, mention it to the king.

David evidently couldn’t quite imagine facing down Uriah that way, however. Maybe his own self-image as a righteous man wouldn’t let him take that route. He preferred to try to hide what he had done. He set out to deceive Uriah by inviting him home for a visit from the front. That way, Uriah would sleep with his wife and, when the baby came, could never be sure it wasn’t his.

It turned out that Uriah was too loyal to go home to his wife; he felt that soldiers shouldn’t do that when a war was on. David, perplexed by a man with more honor than he, was thrust into a much worse coverup. He arranged with Joab to send Uriah forward into an exposed position on the battlefield, and then suddenly withdraw behind him. The plan worked. Uriah was killed. The correspondence between David and Joab is extremely cold blooded. “David told the messenger [who brought word of Uriah’s death], ‘Say this to Joab: “Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another. Press the attack against the city and destroy it.” Say this to encourage Joab.’” (2 Samuel 11:25)

Who is this cold fish? Is this the same man who wrote psalms proclaiming his personal integrity before God? Is this the same passionate man who refused to kill Saul, who proclaimed his love for Jonathan?

He waited for Bathsheba’s mourning period to be over, and then brought her to the palace to bear his son. Still nobody said a word to him, though surely many talked about it behind the scenes. “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.”

When nobody would talk to David, God did, sending Nathan the prophet.


Nathan was a brave man. Without a shred of human support he strode into David’s court. Nathan told a story about a poor man with a beloved pet lamb, and a rich man who took that lamb to feed it to a guest, though he had plenty of lambs of his own. The story caught David’s attention. He burned with anger, telling Nathan that such a man deserved to die, “because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Nathan cried out, “You are the man!” He spoke God’s message to David: after all God had given him, he “despised the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes.” Since he had killed Uriah, “the sword will never depart from your house.” Furthermore, someone close to David, within his own household, would steal his wives and sleep with them in public. “You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.” (2 Samuel 12:12)

It is terrible and humiliating to be caught in the act. It is even worse to be confronted in public, without prior warning. Take all 100 members of the U.S. Senate, consider any President you care to, add any governor or corporate CEO, and ask yourself how they would respond. I can assure you, they would fight back like a tiger. Nobody gets to that powerful position by humbly accepting blame.

As king, David could have Nathan killed, or at least thrown out on his ear. He did not. He said for all to hear, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

It may have been the greatest moment of David’s life. Nathan immediately responded, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.”

Die! I wonder whether the proper legal consequences had even crossed David’s mind. People in power inevitably think themselves above all that.

Nathan did not suggest that forgiveness would obliterate all consequences. David would not die, but the baby born out of his unfaithfulness would.

When the baby fell ill, David acted as though his own life was at stake. “He pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.” (2 Samuel 12:16-17) The death of any child is a heartbreak as deep as a well, but something more is involved here. David has realized the depth of what he has done. Probably he thinks, I wish it were me who would die. It should be me. An innocent child is suffering and dying for David’s sins.

At the end of a week, the child dies. To everyone’s surprise, David takes the news calmly. He gets up and goes about his business. He comforts his wife Bathsheba, she becomes pregnant again, and gives birth to Solomon. David goes back to his job, joining the army and successfully attacking the Ammonites. The story is not really over, though. In fact, it has barely begun.


Monarchies have problems with sons. It is all too common for princes to develop bad character, probably because the children of prominent men grow up spoiled. This was a problem in Israel even before the monarchy. Levi had bad sons. Samuel had bad sons. Saul, amazingly, had at least one very good son, Jonathan. David’s sons, unfortunately, reverted to the norm.

King’s sons are naturally rivals. Only one of them can inherit the crown, and it is far from unknown for the leading candidate to kill off his siblings before they get a chance to kill him. This rivalry is exaggerated in a polygamous household. The mothers are also rivals with each other, vying for the king’s attention. Each mother wants her son to prosper.

David’s oldest son Amnon fell in love with his half-sister, Tamar. The Bible describes it as a classic infatuation, with Amnon making himself sick with frustration. Eventually, with the connivance of his cousin and with David’s naïve assistance, Amnon lured Tamar into his bedroom and raped her. Afterwards he experienced a classic emotional reversal, becoming repulsed by her. He threw Tamar out of his quarters while she was weeping and in distress. She went to live with her brother Absalom, David’s third son.

David was furious, but he did nothing. It’s the first sign that he is paralyzed by his own guilt. David understands what lust can do: it led him to adultery with Bathsheba and then to murder. How can he condemn his son for doing less?

Absalom had no such ambivalence. He stewed on his hatred for his brother. Eventually he lured Amnon to an out-of-town party, and there, when Amnon was tipsy, he murdered him. Afterward he skipped town to go live with his mother’s family in Geshur, a tiny kingdom east of the Sea of Galilee. Absalom was in exile there for three years, during which David mourned for him every day.

Did David mourn because he saw his own failings being played out in his son? Did he perversely identify with Absalom? Emotions are hard to read but Joab characteristically took a pragmatic approach. He saw that David wanted his son back. He got a woman to tell David a story—shades of Nathan—about her two sons. One had killed the other; she feared that in retribution her only remaining son would also be killed. When David said he would take care of it, she applied the case to him. Hadn’t he banished his own son?

David recognized Joab’s hand in the woman’s manipulation, but he was—as Joab knew—eager to be manipulated. He told Joab to bring Absalom home. His only punishment would be that David would not see him. This posed as a punishment for Absalom. In reality, David was punishing himself. He was the one who longed to see his son. He remained tormented by his own failings, and so refused to treat himself to a reunion.

After two years, Absalom grew impatient. He called Joab to see him, but Joab did not come. He called a second time, with no answer. Characteristically, he set Joab’s field on fire. That got Joab to come. “Why have I come from Geshur?” Absalom asked. “It would be better for me if I were still there. I want to see the king’s face, and if I am guilty of anything, let him put me to death.” Absalom had yet to show the slightest hint of repentance. In his mind, Amnon got what he deserved.

When Joab told this to David, he invited Absalom to the palace and embraced him. All was forgiven.

I have asked myself how I would feel toward my son if he murdered his older brother. I find that I can’t begin to imagine it. It’s an unthinkable horror. Compound that with a deep, grinding guilt for your own act of murder, and you get paralysis. That is how it affected David. He didn’t know what he should do to Absalom, so he did nothing.


Absalom was a conniver, obsessed with his own good looks and the weight of his hair (2 Samuel 14:26), proud to move around in a chariot with fifty men running ahead of him (15:1). Now accepted back in the king’s court, he became a politician, talking in a friendly way to everybody, and denigrating his father’s administration. In the nature of things people complain about their government and imagine how much better it could be. Perhaps David was depressed and out of sight while Absalom made himself visible. Absalom “stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” (2 Samuel 15:6)

After four years of this, Absalom went off to Hebron, where David had first reigned. There he sprang his conspiracy to kill his father and take over the government.

When David heard about it, he acted decisively—depressingly so. A messenger brought word that “the hearts of the men of Israel are with Absalom.” (2 Samuel 15:13)  David, who had been a hero in Israel since he was a young man, who had always been confident in battle, immediately wanted to flee Jerusalem. He felt sure that if Absalom caught them, they would all be killed. He had no faith in his ability to win a battle against a son who had never led an army.

It seems likely to me that David was still lost in regret. He had failed as a parent. The son he had mooned over all those years now sought to kill him. You can’t fail any more dramatically. He could trace it all the way back to his murder of Uriah. He should have died then. Perhaps he wanted to die now.

But not quite. David still had enough energy to run away.

Second Samuel’s detailed description of David leaving Jerusalem is among the saddest scenes in the Bible. I’ve never heard a sermon on it, and it’s certainly not taught in Sunday school. Nevertheless, it is utterly compelling in its grief and passive regret.

It begins with David pausing on the outskirts of Jerusalem to review his troops. We learn here that during his sojourn in Gath, when David fought as a mercenary for the Philistines, he gained the loyalty of 600 Philistine soldiers. They had abandoned their homeland to follow him. David now tries to send them home. “You came only yesterday. And today shall I make you wander about with us, when I do not know where I am going?”

The men from Gath refused to go home, so David let them follow him, accompanied by their families.

“The whole countryside wept aloud as all the people passed by…. David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot. All the people with him covered their heads too and were weeping as they went up.” (2 Samuel 15:23,30)

A man named Shimei, from Saul’s clan, turned up. “He pelted David and all the king’s officials with stones, though all the troops and the special guard were on David’s right and left. As he cursed, Shimei said, ‘Got out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel! The Lord has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The Lord has handed the kingdom over to your son Absalom. You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood!’”

One of David’s generals, Abishai, wanted to put an end to it. But David stopped him from killing Shimei. “My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today.”

“So David and his men continued along the road while Shimei was going along the hillside opposite him, cursing as he went and throwing stones at him and showering him with dirt. The king and all the people with him arrived at their destination exhausted.” (2 Samuel 16:5-14)

Only one scene in the Bible approximates this one: Jesus carrying his cross out of Jerusalem to Golgotha. He too was barefoot, and surrounded by weeping people. He too was mocked and cursed, making no attempt to defend himself. The son of David followed David’s footsteps, a king rejected by his subjects. Jesus was the Man of Sorrows, following in David’s line.

In both cases, the king of Israel suffers, is rejected, and faces death at the hand of his own children.

The difference, of course, was that David was punished for what he had done. He carried his own sins. Jesus made that slow march of tears carrying the sins of the world. He was punished for what we have done.


David was not abandoned. People came out of the woodwork to help him, including several non-Israelite neighbors who brought food and bedding and pots. (2 Samuel 17:27-29) David had loyalists left behind in Jerusalem, too, who worked to undermine Absalom. David’s army remained steadfast. He organized them into three units—the first sign that he was emerging from his emotional paralysis—and was ready to lead, but his fighters insisted he stay behind the lines. “Even if half of us die, they won’t care; but you are worth ten thousand of us.” (2 Samuel 18:3)

So David stood at the city gate while the army marched out. He should have been encouraging them to fight bravely, but he couldn’t help himself: he told his commanders to treat Absalom gently. The whole army heard it. He was emerging from his depression, and acting like a king, but his heart was still preoccupied with his beloved, murderous son.

The battle was joined in a forest, and soon spread over the entire countryside, with great casualties. Famously, Absalom was undone by his hair. Riding under the branches of an oak, he got his locked tangled in its branches and ended up hanging in the air while his mule kept going. When Joab was told that Absalom was dangling he did not hesitate. Joab took three javelins and plunged them into Absalom’s heart. That was the end of Absalom; his army melted away when they realized their leader was dead.

The good news reached David, but he didn’t seem to care about victory; all he wanted to know was the fate of his son. No one wanted to tell him. Finally, when he learned that Absalom was dead, “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Samuel 18:33)

“If only I had died instead of you!” David may be thinking of the battle just concluded, wishing that his army had been overrun and he had been killed, leaving Absalom alive to become king.

Or perhaps his memory is casting back to his sin with Uriah. If he had died for his sins then, as he deserved, none of this tragedy would ever have begun.

In reality, his death would not have cleaned up the mess he had made. That is the fantasy many suicides entertain: If I were gone everybody would be better off. But Israel without David as its chief would have been pathetic and vulnerable, as it was under Saul. His sons would have fought just as murderously. David is saying he would gladly give up his own life to prevent these horrible outcomes. But his death would merely change one set of horrible outcomes for another. No one can sacrifice his life to redeem the world. It doesn’t work that way.

David’s public display of emotion disgraces his army. There ought to have been great celebration in David’s camp at the astonishing military turnaround. Instead, “the victory that day was turned into mourning, because on that day the troops heard it said, ‘The king is grieving for his son.’ The men stole into the city that day as men steal in who are ashamed when they flee from battle. The king covered his face and cried aloud, ‘O my son Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Samuel 19:2-4)

Joab read David the riot act, telling him he was humiliating the men who had saved his life. “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the Lord that if you don’t go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall.” (2 Samuel 19:6-7)

David heard Joab and remembered his duty. He got up and sat in the gateway to review the army. Soon David went back to Jerusalem, setting the administration back in order. He lived the rest of his long life without further rebellion.


What can we make of this long, detailed account of David as father? Three sons ultimately died, while the nation and its king suffered incalculable sadness and disruption. It is a story without a happy ending and without a clear rationale for its telling.

I have heard people interpret these stories seeking wisdom about parenting—concluding that parents should not have favorites, and that parents should discipline their children. True as those lessons are, they don’t get at the deeper meaning of these events, which surely center on David’s failings as a man and the way in which regret clouded his vision. He failed as a parent because he failed as a man and as a king.

A letdown after great effort and great success is very human. If David was depressed and didn’t want to go to work, he is not the first or the last to feel that way. Then he faced a moment of testing. He saw a beautiful woman and tried to self-medicate with sex. From there a cascade of decisions led him to murder, and from murder to moral paralysis, and from paralysis to self-pity and almost to the destruction of his kingdom.

In this study of David I’ve tried to draw out qualities that link David to David’s son Jesus. In this case, however, there do not seem to be any. Jesus was sinless, and furthermore he had no children. David’s problems of sin and regret and paralysis, his failings as a father were not Jesus’s.

Only one aspect of fatherhood does link the two men: their procession out of Jerusalem, weeping, barefoot, taunted, cursed. Both David and Jesus could accurately be called “Man of Sorrows.” That procession is an emblem of the sorrow of our world.

In both cases, the problem of sorrows is rooted in the problem of sin. Sin causes David’s self-destruction and deterioration—his own sin. Sin also causes Jesus’s—the world’s sin. Jesus as well as David might well have said, in grief: “If only I could die instead of you.”

Jesus did.

David: the King

April 26, 2018

This is the fifth in a series on David and David’s Son.

The Hebrew word for “king,” melek, might as well be translated “warlord.” Kings were fighters above all else, often ruling a single city and leading a relatively small band of warriors who might run in from their fields to grab a weapon. Few kings had palaces, none royal carriages.

The pomp and ceremony that draw us to The Crown have very little to do with Israel’s monarchy. For Israel, it was a practical question of leadership.

That’s certainly true of Israel’s first kings, Saul and David. Up until their time, the whole idea of monarchy had been carefully avoided in Israel. Israel was different from everybody else; Israel had God as their king. According to the book of Judges this worked well at times. When troubles came and God’s people called out for help, an attentive God sent a “judge” to their rescue. (Judges might occasionally deal with legal questions, but they were mainly fighters.) The problem, from God’s perspective, was that Israel frequently wandered away from God. The book of Judges describes Israel’s gradual deterioration under this system, to the point where they were carrying out hideous immoralities, and warring tribe against tribe. Their heedlessness was described as, “everybody did what was right in their own eyes.”

By Saul’s day, the “God-as-king” approach had led to deep dissatisfaction. Other nations were invading, and Israel was getting whipped. Desperate, they asked Samuel, their “judge,” to name a king, “such as all the other nations have.” (1 Samuel 8:5)

Samuel was very unhappy with the request. He had appointed his own sons as “judges,” and he had a vested interest in keeping the system alive. When he complained to God, however, he was told to give the people what they asked for, even as he warned them about the consequences.

The king, Samuel says in 1 Samuel 8:10-18, will draft your sons into the army, or force them to work in his fields or his workshops. He will take your daughters into his kitchen. Furthermore, he will appropriate your best lands, servants, and cattle, and tax you 10% of your sheep and goats. For all practical purposes, you will be his slaves. You will cry out to God for help—as the Israelites did when they were slaves in Egypt—but this time God will not answer. You asked for a king, and God warned you about the consequences. You will have to live with them.

Samuel continued this diatribe some time later, in a retirement speech given after Saul had been named Israel’s first king. Samuel reminded them of the effectiveness of the “God-as-king” system which they had rejected. He emphasized that their choice of a king was evil, but added that if they, the people, followed God’s way all would be well nevertheless. “Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will be swept away.”

The dire prediction came true. Saul’s kingship ended with his death and the death of his sons in battle. The Philistines routed Israel’s army and occupied its towns. Israel and its king were “swept away.”

Saul’s death meant that David was finally able to come out of hiding—he had been in exile for years–and pursue the throne he had been promised at his anointing. But was there anything worth inheriting? The country was in tatters, occupied by the Philistines and divided between warring tribes. David worked hard at healing those tribal wounds, publicly lamenting Saul’s death, and sending word to the city of Jabesh Gilead that he appreciated their loyalty to Saul in burying his body.

Despite David’s efforts at reconciliation, civil war broke out between his tribe—Judah–and the rest of Israel, who were loyal to Saul’s surviving son, Ish-Bosheth. Death and murder and betrayal followed, with hundreds of Israelites killed by their own kin. This went on for seven bloody years, with David’s forces gradually gaining the upper hand. When Ish-Bosheth was murdered on his bed by two of his own men, the civil war finally ended. All Israel came together to make David their king. His reign would last 33 years.

Out of the ruins that Saul had left, something surprising emerged. David was a great king. He took a divided and occupied country and made it unified and secure. Whereas Saul’s paranoia had made enemies out of friends, David reached out to Saul’s heirs and supporters to make them his allies. One of David’s first moves was the conquest of Jerusalem, which had never been conquered. The Jebusites who lived in its impregnable fortress crowed that even blind and lame soldiers could keep David’s army out. David evidently got in through the underground tunnels that gave the city access to water. Like his conquest of Goliath many years before, it was a clever and skillful ploy.

More skillful, however, was David’s use of the city as a unifying capital. Jerusalem’s advantage was that it didn’t belong to any of the tribes. It was neutral territory. David built a palace there (with help from Tyre, the wealthy coastal city). If you had business with the government, you went to Jerusalem.

A unified nation was of little use if it was also an occupied nation. The Philistines, alarmed at the prospect of losing control, sent in the army, but David defeated them. Throughout his reign, he kept the Philistines at bay.

Perhaps David’s most strategic and unifying act, however, was bringing the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The chest had been stored and neglected since Samuel’s early days. David saw its potential as a sign of God’s presence in the new capital. He assembled a large contingent to march it to Jerusalem.

Perhaps David did not grasp how seriously he needed to treat God’s property. He planned to use the ark, but he neglected to consult the ancient books to learn how the ark must be handled. Putting the ark in a brand-new cart sounded like an honoring approach, but the old instructions said that the ark must be carried with long poles by the tribe of Levi. (The ark even had rings for the poles.) Nobody was supposed to touch the ark, on pain of death, but when the oxen tripped and the ark lurched forward, a man named Uzzah reached out to steady it. He was struck dead.

David was first angry at God, and then afraid. He stopped the procession and left the ark in a nearby house. For three months it sat there, while David stewed over what had happened. This was David, the writer of the psalms, who had an extraordinary, transparent relationship with God. But he did not know what to do with a God who was radioactive.

Meanwhile, the household where the ark was housed received extraordinary blessings. The Bible does not specify, but we may suspect wonderful harvests, healed diseases, new pregnancies. David heard about this and realized that this God (in the words of C.S. Lewis) was not safe, but he was good. David called the Levites and started up the procession again, this time according to instructions. It was a wild celebration, with music and dancing all along the route. Every six steps, they sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf, which meant a barbecue for a meat-starved people. David danced more exuberantly than anybody. Evidently, his robe flipped up, and he didn’t care. When his wife Michal, Saul’s daughter, saw him entering the gates of Jerusalem, she was sickened by the display.

David had pitched a tent in Jerusalem where the ark was to reside. He offered more sacrifices, blessed all the people assembled, and distributed food—bread, dates and raisins.

Afterwards, Michal met him at home. “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (2 Samuel 6:20)

David answered, matching her venom: “It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.”


Bringing the ark to Jerusalem meant that all Israel gathered there for the great festivals. It was God who had created their nation, who had liberated them from slavery in Egypt, who had given them this beautiful land, and who had anointed their king. God united them in spite of their tribal divisions. They had a great deal to celebrate together in his presence. By making Jerusalem the center of worship, David had at one stroke unified his people under his rule.

He was evidently not using God as a totem; he had deep passion, as his wife Michal discovered. He wanted to do more. “More” seemed to him to be a grand building for the ark—a place to honor him. He put the idea to Nathan, a prophet, and got a positive response. When Nathan asked God, however, he got a very different answer. No. David was not to build the temple, because he had blood on his hands. A son would do it. But David would be remembered as one of the greats of all time, and Israel would flourish in peace. Most significantly, “I will establish the throne of [your son’s] kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son…. My love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul… Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7:13-16)

As we saw in the last chapter, David took this as entirely good news. For us, it can’t help but be a little puzzling, when we look at the larger picture. Remember, God did not want Israel to ask for a king. The request was evil, he said. He told the Israelites, through Samuel, that if they didn’t stop pursuing evil, “both you and the king will be swept away.” Under Saul this dire prediction came true. Back to God-as-king? No, another king has been named, and what is more, a promise has been made to all his offspring, forever. They would never be rejected. The kingdom under David’s lineage would endure for all time.

We see a pattern: God works with the materials he is given. He did not want Israel to have a king, but he can work with it. He is building his kingdom out of human mistakes. The very institution that he resists as evil, he will now turn into the foundation of his blessing for all people on earth.

Think about the implications this holds for us. Our worst tendencies, our greatest failings, can not only be forgiven, they can become in God’s hands something beautiful and redemptive.


As the Bible tells the story, God’s promises didn’t appear to work out. David himself became a bad king, wracked by sin and unable to rule over even his own family. His son Solomon, the temple builder, was granted great wisdom and yet created such resentment that the kingdom split in two almost immediately after his death. It would never be reunited. What was meant to be one people under God became two. Furthermore, the kings who ruled both northern and southern kingdoms were nearly all bad, neglecting the God who had promised to bless their reigns, and mixing the worship of Yahweh with foreign religions. Corruption and injustice became commonplace. So did warfare. The poor suffered.

Yet—and this is a truly strange phenomenon—the worse the kings became, the more the Messiah hope grew. Messiah comes from the Hebrew masiah, meaning “anointed,” and shorthand for “king.” Messiah is meant to be the king who lives up to all God’s promises, and who makes Israel live up to its role blessing the whole world. Some of the psalms—2 and 110 in particular—celebrate a king who is triumphant over all other kings. The prophets point toward a day when a Messiah-king will change everything.

For example, in Isaiah 9:1-7, famous as a Christmas reading, celebrates a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

“Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,

Establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness

From that time on and forever.”

No such king ever reigned in Israel. But Israel longed for one, and the prophets predicted one.

A generation after Isaiah, Jeremiah foresaw:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.”

                                    –Jeremiah 33:15-16

The prophet Ezekiel predicted a shepherd-king:

I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.  I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.”

                                    –Ezekiel 34:23,24

And Micah sees a son who

 “will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.”

                                    –Micah 5:4

Zechariah 9:9 anticipates the great and joyful day:

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

As these and many other glorious predictions are made, Israel’s kings get worse and worse. It’s not simply that they are corrupt and immoral, they are also ineffective. Israel is militarily threatened by its neighbors, including major powers like Egypt, Assyria and—ultimately—Babylon. Israel becomes a vassal state, then tries to bolt for independence. First the northern kingdom is dismembered by Assyria, and all its surviving people taken into exile. Then the southern kingdom is conquered, Jerusalem destroyed and the temple razed. Survivors—including the last two kings–are taken to Babylon, the so-called Babylonian captivity. Some of the people will return, but the kings never will.

As 2 Kings 24:30 summarizes, “It was because of the Lord’s anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end he thrust them from his presence.”

It is this that apparently prompts an agonized poem from the hand of Ethan the Ezrahite, recorded as Psalm 89. It begins with praise for God’s faithfulness, noting that

You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant,
‘I will establish your line forever
and make your throne firm through all generations.’”

The psalm continues with a lengthy exposition of God’s promises, concluding that

Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness—
and I will not lie to David—

 that his line will continue forever
and his throne endure before me like the sun;
it will be established forever like the moon,
the faithful witness in the sky.

Then comes the great reversal:

But you have rejected, you have spurned,
you have been very angry with your anointed one.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant
and have defiled his crown in the dust.

 You have broken through all his walls
and reduced his strongholds to ruins.
All who pass by have plundered him;
he has become the scorn of his neighbors.

 You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
you have made all his enemies rejoice.

 Indeed, you have turned back the edge of his sword
and have not supported him in battle.

 You have put an end to his splendor
and cast his throne to the ground.

 You have cut short the days of his youth;
you have covered him with a mantle of shame.

 How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire?

….Lord, where is your former great love,
which in your faithfulness you swore to David?

This piercing question receives no answer.

A cadre of Israelites eventually are allowed to return to the southern kingdom. They even rebuild the city walls and a small replica of the temple. There is, however, no king. Undoubtedly some of David’s heirs came back to Israel, so in principle a Davidic king might be named. However, to do so would be to sign your own death certificate. Israel is no longer an independent country. Their foreign masters would not take kindly to a king.

The situation remains the same for hundreds of years, until the birth of Jesus.

The gospels show that Israel was still avidly looking for their king, the one who would save everything. When John the Baptist began to preach, crowds of people swarmed into the wilderness hoping that he was the fulfillment of their dreams. When Jesus started to preach and heal, masses appeared believing he might be the Messiah. What else could he mean, proclaiming the Kingdom of God? Kingdoms require a king.

What do we mean by saying that Jesus was a king? He was certainly not a warrior king in the model of David. Jesus was entirely and—one might say—aggressively non-violent.

He showed the self-certainty of a king, however, certain that he was anointed by God to lead his people. Jesus was a king of peace, pursuing peace through peaceful means. He did not lead his people to war, he led them to worship. His reign of justice would be founded on truth, not coercion.

To me, the continuing thread of David shows itself most dramatically in Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It echoes the joyful procession that David led with the ark of the covenant. For both men, this may have been the single happiest day of their lives. David was accompanied by a huge throng of “chosen men” singing and dancing, whereas Jesus was accompanied by “a very large crowd” shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” and “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” For David, ecstatic joy was prompted by bringing God, represented by the ark, into the city to reside there. For Jesus, it was even more basic. He himself represented God.

There are always scoffers. David faced it in his own family, when his wife scorned his undignified excitement. Jesus encountered it in the priests and the teachers of the law, who were upset at the children crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David.” He answered them by quoting from one of David’s psalms: “the lips of children and infants… have ordained praise.” That praise, in the psalm, is to God himself. (Psalm 8:2) The son of David is greater than David.

Jesus had paused on the outskirts of Jerusalem, weeping. He was well aware that the beautiful city stood on the brink of destruction. David’s entrance into Jerusalem was the beginning of its flourishing. Jesus’s was the beginning of its judgment, “because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:44)

David was a king. Jesus was the king. But as Samuel warned the Israelites when they got their first king, “if you do not obey the Lord, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your fathers.” (1 Samuel 12:15)


Sometimes I worry that the imagery we use for worship is archaic and irrelevant to my life. We sing about shepherds but don’t encounter any in real life; we sing about Jesus as king while we live in a democracy. Is this an exercise in nostalgia? Or fantasy?

It could be, but I don’t think it must be. In fact, I think these ancient images get at something timeless. In the case of royality, it’s fascinating to consider how many books and movies are devoted to them. From Henry VIII to Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth (in recent media history) they remain intriguing and beguiling. Why?

I suspect it has to do with loyalty. The attraction of the crown is wrapped up in the subject’s submission to the throne. It’s a loyalty to something bigger than the person. “The king is dead; long live the king.” The king’s subject gains something in the transaction. He or she is ennobled through the nobility of the monarch, which transcends his personal limitations. That is why the crowds gather to catch a glimpse of him as he rides past. The transcendence of the crown seems to touch the divine; that’s why so often it’s thought that to revolt against the king is to revolt against God.

Yet as everybody knows, kings and queens can be good or bad, noble or evil, admirable or stupid. And in some way they are a reflection of their subjects. A good people can have a bad king, and vice versa, but it’s not so common. Often enough people get the kind of leadership they deserve.

David the king, it seems to me, captures this dynamic of the good king ennobling his people. Or perhaps it could better be said, God uses this dynamic in order to introduce his son to the world. For Saul is a failed king; and David is a good king; and after David come very many bad kings, and then no king at all—and then, lastly, comes Jesus, the great king that everybody is longing for. Humans have this psychological architecture that makes us love and honor royalty, to place our lives in their hands and our hopes in their person. Pretty often this architecture proves traitorous to us. The kings are bad; we suffer and look like fools. That is why democracies threw out the monarchy, or made them very small and a symbol only, as in Great Britain.

David, though, is proof that a king can live up to his promise and validate our adoration; and Jesus suggests that our internal architecture was designed to honor and love something that never appears in the normal train of events, something better than David and bigger than kings—the king of kings.