David: The Poet

April 23, 2018

This is the fourth in a series on the life of David.

When I think of David, I see a man of action—lean, desert-hardened, powerful and quick. He was a warrior. He killed men in close combat. He spent years in wilderness exile. This is the David portrayed in 1 and 2 Samuel.

But he was also a musician—that is how he first came to Saul’s court—and a poet. It’s not easy to put that together with the image of a warrior. The Pentagon is not a place for poetry seminars. I don’t see the colonels pouring over William Carlos Williams during their lunch hours. That’s who David was, however—a serious poet.

Exactly half of the 150 psalms in the Bible are attributed to David—73 explicitly, and two more attributed to David in the New Testament. Thirteen of these attributions relate the psalms to incidents in David’s life.

We don’t know exactly what is meant by the inscription “of David.” It’s usually taken as a mark of David’s authorship, but it could also mean “in the style of David.” Either way, David is the poet indelibly linked to the psalms.

I love the psalms. They are ever-new. I learn from them. I enjoy them more every year.  David’s psalms surge with energy and intensity. Amazingly, a man dead for 3,000 years is giving us access to his soul. Poetry is not, as some people apparently think, a dreamy medium for spontaneous expressions of feeling. It is a careful, studied and skillful use of words and rhythm and juxtaposition. Good poets work hard. David was more than a good poet, he was a great poet.

If poetry were simply a hobby, on the level with stamp collecting, it would make no difference at all for David’s monarchy. A case can be made, however, that David’s psalms were the most influential and long-lasting of all his accomplishments.  They shaped the heart and soul of Israel’s worship. It was Israel’s passionate relationship to God, not its war-making abilities, that made Israel great.

So David, in writing poetry, was building a nation.

They say that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s radio Fireside Talks helped Americans regain confidence in the Depression. They say Winston Churchill’s speeches enabled the British to withstand Nazi bombs. David’s poems did more. They shaped Israel’s relationship with God. As a nation infused with God’s calling, Israel’s very nature and identity were involved, and not just for a temporary crisis. This was for all time.

David was a warrior and a king, but most importantly of all, he was a poet. Words matter.

**

Sometimes it is unclear whether a passage in the Bible should be read as poetry or prose. Since Hebrew poetry does not rhyme, there are no crystal-clear indications. For example, God’s words to Adam, Eve and the serpent in Genesis 3 are often rendered as poetry, though they make perfectly good sense as prose. Bible translators have to decide whether to set up the fragmented lines that indicate poetry. If the passage sounds “poetic”—if it uses unusual words or metaphors, if it is aphoristic—then it is shown as poetry.

The earliest passage in the Bible that is indisputably poetry is Exodus 15:1-18, the Song of Moses and Miriam. The first words give it away: “I will sing.” You sing in poetry. This is a song of triumph, led by Moses and his sister Miriam, celebrating the defeat of the Egyptians. It’s a rollicking praise song to God, who has rescued his people.

Moses is also named as the author of a song in Deuteronomy 32. It is a poem that tells the history of a wonderful God who chose Israel as his people, and a faithless people who constantly go astray.

These themes from Moses—praise and triumph, a gracious God and a faithless people–get repeated many times in the Bible, particularly in the poetry of the prophets. Each prophet has a distinctive message, speaking to a distinctive situation, but most of what the prophets write has to do with justice—the justice Israel owes the poor, and (even more) the justice Israel owes God. Your neighbor deserves more! the prophets say. Your God deserves much more!

The prophets preach sermons in the second and third person. The psalms offer something quite different from that. They offer David’s personal relationship with God, told in the first person.

His psalms speak in the unmistakable voice of an individual praying to God in intimate relationship. His prayers are passionate and personal. The psalmist is frustrated by enemies. He pleads for mercy. He basks in God’s love. There is darkness and light, cheer and gloom, guilt and forgiveness, praise and pleas for help. This is why psalms have captured the hearts of believers for thousands of years: each one of us can adopt them as our personal plea. These are our prayers.

Praying the psalms, a person affirms that life is difficult. Yes, there is joy and exultation in God and all he has done. But there is also much complaining, questioning, worrying. All of it is lifted up to God.

Praying the psalms, each person becomes like Jacob, wrestling with God and demanding that God bless him. This viewpoint is so basic a part of our faith today that we might take it for granted. But if you think of religion through the ages, and in many different traditions, you will realize that it can be dominated by law and doctrine. It puts many demands on people; it makes them feel small. All they hear are facts that they must account for. Such religion may offer no space for the individual person. If you talk to people who have left their faith in rebellion or despair, very often their fundamental complaint boils down to this: there was no room for me.

In the psalms, there is always plenty of room for me.

This is David’s legacy. The individual may (and must) speak to God with complete honesty.

**

I went through all David’s psalms and noted down the parts that are expressed in the first person singular. I wanted to think about the themes that David brought to the poetic expression of his relationship with God.

The first thing I noticed was how much material there is. It’s not just a few lines in a few poems; David is credited with scores of poems that scale the emotions of life in company with God. What I quote here barely touches the whole.

Enemies. The great biblical scholar Derek Kidner noted two fundamental realities that appear in nearly all the psalms: the presence of God, and the presence of enemies. Time and again, David presents these enemies to God, asking for protection and vindication.

Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”

                         –Psalm 3:1,2

 See how numerous are my enemies
and how fiercely they hate me!

                                    –Psalm 25:19

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
 I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

                                    –Psalm 13:1-6

Rescue me, Lord, from evildoers;
protect me from the violent,

who devise evil plans in their hearts
and stir up war every day.

                                    –Psalm 140:1-2

Listen to my cry,
for I am in desperate need;
rescue me from those who pursue me,
for they are too strong for me.

                                    — Psalm 142:1

Security. David is sometimes frantic with worry, but time and again he returns to the comfort and security of resting in God. He expresses this with great, convincing eloquence: 

I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.
I will not fear though tens of thousands
assail me on every side.

                                    –Psalm 3:5-6

In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, Lord,
make me dwell in safety.

                                    –Psalm 4:8

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

                                    —Psalm 23:4

One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.

                                    — Psalm 27:4-5

Asking for help. This is so basic that we may overlook it: David asks God for help. His faith engages a God who sees his troubles, who can hear his plea, and who cares.

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.

                                    –Psalm 25:16-18

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish
and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,
and my bones grow weak.
Because of all my enemies,
I am the utter contempt of my neighbors
and an object of dread to my closest friends—
those who see me on the street flee from me.
I am forgotten as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.

                                    –Psalm 31:9-12

Lord, you have seen this; do not be silent.
Do not be far from me, Lord.
Awake, and rise to my defense!
Contend for me, my God and Lord.
Vindicate me in your righteousness, Lord my God;
do not let them gloat over me.
Do not let them think, “Aha, just what we wanted!”
or say, “We have swallowed him up.”

                                    –Psalm 35:22-25

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

                                    –Psalm 51:10-12

But as for me, I am poor and needy;
come quickly to me, O God.
You are my help and my deliverer;
Lord, do not delay.

                                    –Psalm 70:5

But you, Sovereign Lord,
help me for your name’s sake;
out of the goodness of your love, deliver me.
For I am poor and needy,
and my heart is wounded within me.

                                    –Psalm 109:21-22

Asking mercy. David needs help, but he also needs mercy. He knows that he is not always in the right. God’s forgiveness is a persistent subject for prayer.

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long?

                                    –Psalm 6:1-3

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

                                                      –Psalm 32:3-5

My guilt has overwhelmed me
like a burden too heavy to bear.

                                    — Psalm 38:4

I said, “Have mercy on me, Lord;
heal me, for I have sinned against you.”

                                    — Psalm 41:4

Lord, the Lord Almighty,
may those who hope in you
not be disgraced because of me.

                                    –Psalm 69:6

Innocence and confidence. Even though he knows his failings, David is quick to assert his fundamental faithfulness. He has confidence in his relationship with God.

Know that the Lord has set apart his faithful servant for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.

                                                –Psalm 4:3

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

                                    — Psalm 16:9-11

Though you probe my heart,
though you examine me at night and test me,
you will find that I have planned no evil;
my mouth has not transgressed.

                                    — Psalm 17:3

You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water.

I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory.
Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.
I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands.
I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
with singing lips my mouth will praise you.

On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.

                                                      — Psalm 63:1-8

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

                                    — Psalm 139:1-4, 23-24

Speaking of trouble. David not only prays for help and mercy, he examines his life in the presence of God. All is not easy, and all is not well.

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

                                    — Psalm 22:6-8

I said, “I will watch my ways
and keep my tongue from sin;
I will put a muzzle on my mouth
while in the presence of the wicked.”
So I remained utterly silent,
not even saying anything good.
But my anguish increased;

my heart grew hot within me.

                                    — Psalm 39:1-3

If an enemy were insulting me,
I could endure it;
if a foe were rising against me,
I could hide.
But it is you, a man like myself,
my companion, my close friend,
with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship
at the house of God,
as we walked about
among the worshipers.

                                    — Psalm 55:12-14

Love and praise. In spite of trouble and sin, David’s love for God wells up like a spring. His relationship is not fundamentally transactional, it’s personal and grateful. David lives by grace.

I love you, Lord, my strength.

                                    — Psalm 18:1

Lord, I love the house where you live,
the place where your glory dwells.

                                    — Psalm 26:8

You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.

                                    — Psalm 30:11

My heart, O God, is steadfast,
my heart is steadfast;
I will sing and make music.
Awake, my soul!
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.

I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples.
For great is your love, reaching to the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the skies.

                                                      — Psalm 57:7-10

From the ends of the earth I call to you,
I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the foe.

I long to dwell in your tent forever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.

                                                      — Psalm 61:2-4

Teach me your way, Lord,
that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name.
I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart;
I will glorify your name forever.
For great is your love toward me;
you have delivered me from the depths,
from the realm of the dead.

                                    — Psalm 86:11-13

Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

                                    — Psalm 103:1-5

My heart, O God, is steadfast;
I will sing and make music with all my soul.
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.

                                    — Psalm 108:1-2

**

We learn a lot about David from reading his psalms. We learn about his skill set: he was artistically alive, gifted in crafting poetry. More significantly, he had a deep, personal, emotive and transparent relationship with God. David didn’t see God as far off. He didn’t think of him in terms of principles and values. He perceived God as a living person, as close as his breath. He trusted the goodness of God. Even when he complained or questioned God—which he often did—he did so in faith. He believed in God’s fairness and his love. He believed in God’s power to make things right, and when it didn’t happen, he wanted to know why.

It wouldn’t be true to say there is no “personal prayer” like this in the rest of the Old Testament. But it’s relatively rare. Most of the emotion is God’s emotion. God gets angry; God is indignant; God loves; God shows tenderness. The focus of most Old Testament poetry is God’s plan for the world and for his people. Very little focuses on human joy and sorrow. David’s poetry is different: distinctly human-focused, even while it is God-centered.

David’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 1716-27 gives a good example of how remarkable David’s relationship with God was. Unlike most of the psalms, it’s completely rooted in a historical event, and can’t really be adapted to our personal prayers. (That’s why it’s not in the psalmbook, I assume.)

The situation is David’s plan to build a palace for God. He has built a palace for himself, but God still lives in a tent. The prophet Nathan encourages this generous ambition until God speaks to him directly, telling him otherwise. David is not the one to build a temple. One of his sons will do it, and through him God will establish a lasting dynasty. “His throne will be established forever.” (1 Chronicles 17:14)

The message offers some wonderful promises to David about the future. Still, its heart is a check on the ambitions of a king. David has a plan to honor God through a building, but God turns him down. Not everybody would take this well.

David, however, appears unaware that he might resent the slight. He responds with wonder, with humble awe, that he has been honored by God’s promise to his offspring. “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?” (1 Chronicles 17:16) What seems to amaze him is the promise that his family and God’s name will be associated for all time.

You might ask yourself whether you would respond in the same way. How much do you care about your future grandchildren’s walk with God? What would it do for you if you knew that your family would have a lasting reputation for godliness? Would you jump up and down in delight? Do you long to establish a heritage of Christian leadership through your family? I asked my adult Sunday school class that question, and got the distinct impression that they had never given it any thought.

David treats it as though it is the most wonderful thing he could imagine.

Two of David’s comments deserve particular notice. “For you know your servant, O Lord.” (verse 18) David is well aware of his failures and his sins. The coming years will make him even more aware. Knowing what God knows, he is astonished at God’s treatment. David had many flaws, but never the failing of arrogance before God. He knew God’s grace as a very personal matter.

David also says, “For the sake of your servant and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made known all these great promises.” (verse 19) He is citing the divine combination: caring for David as an individual while relentlessly pursuing God’s purpose in the world. David’s intensely personal prayers—with their open feeling, their transparency—nearly always reflect this combination, connecting his personal needs to God’s grand plans to redeem the nations through his people and their anointed king.

Years later David offered another prayer when the Israelites gave generously to the temple building fund. Having been denied permission to build the temple himself, David was doing everything possible to prepare for his son Solomon to follow through. David provided his own riches—gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone—for a glorious building. Then he asked for the Israelite leaders’ contribution, and they gave with great liberality.

David is once again overwhelmed. “Who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.” (1 Chronicles 29:14) It’s nothing like a prayer of self-congratulation. Rather, David recognizes that God is the true king. “Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all.” (verse 11) In contrast, “we are aliens and strangers in your sight…. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope.” (verse 15)

David’s focus is not the magnificence of the building, or the amount of money raised. His focus is on a generous heart. “O Lord, God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep this desire in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you.” (1 Chronicles 29:18) The temple, after all, is the place of worship. It is there that David’s psalms will be sung. That is what David’s people give to with such openhandedness. This prompts David’s prayer of praise.

Humility, transparency, gratefulness, passion, love, hope—these are the personal attributes that come through David’s poetry and prayer. In them we see quite clearly why David was said to be “a man after God’s own heart.” (Acts 13:22)

Think what David is not “about.”

–He is not about accumulating money or power.

–He is not about winning admirers.

–He is not about building great monuments.

David’s passion is to protect and strengthen his people so they can live up to their calling as God’s people. His passion is for God, whom he loves, and for God’s plans in the world. What we know about these qualities in David, we know from David’s poetry.

**

Jesus, the son of David, was not a poet. To the best of our knowledge, he never wrote anything. Nevertheless, he believed that words matter, and he used them powerfully to lead his people toward the redemption of the world. In this, he was like David.

Jesus’s primary message was “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This was not particularly addressed to the priests in the temple hierarchy, or to the rulers in the government, or to the Roman occupiers, or to the traitorous tax collectors. Jesus addressed everybody, including leprosy victims, women with gynecological problems, blind beggars, people crippled by orthopedic issues, farmers, fishermen. He addressed them as individuals, whoever they were and whatever they did. To the everlasting disappointment of those with political, sociological or economic analyses of human problems, he began with a call to ordinary individuals rather than institutions or organizations. He called to the same people who prayed David’s prayers.

Jesus’ call certainly applied to political, sociological or economic problems. He called individuals to repent in order to join in the great happening of the kingdom of God. God’s people should come together and work together, challenging and changing governments and institutions. It begins with the individual, however, and the call is addressed to the individual consciousness. This is David’s world view: life with God as a personal relationship that carries us into a plan much bigger than we have dreamed.

The sermon on the mount and Jesus’ parables are brilliant compositions that explain this world view to ordinary people. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said. “Blessed are those who mourn.” He might be describing the humility and the grief that mark so many of David’s psalms. In the sermon Jesus addresses social problems: violence, adultery, broken marriages, dishonest courts, social discord. Each one begins with an appeal to the individual to live in the consciousness of God and to do better than obey the law. We are urged not merely to punish murder, but to eliminate angry talk; not merely to avoid adultery, but to confront lust; not merely to follow the law in divorce proceedings, but to stop divorcing; not merely to avoid breaking contracts, but to stick to your word in all circumstances. The charge isn’t to change the laws, or reform the courts, or offer marriage seminars. It’s to walk with God and live blamelessly before him. Which is precisely what David aimed to do, and what his psalms continually consider.

Like a great poem, Jesus’ words in the sermon cannot be summarized or condensed or even fully comprehended. They expose us not just to a way of life, but to Jesus himself. We understand David’s life with God by reading the psalms, and in a similar way we feel Jesus’s person as we read the sermon on the mount.

The parables are also brilliant compositions–short, memorable word pictures to describe the kingdom of God and how it works. The parables help individuals seeking to follow God’s way. They describe large forces at work—the forces of God’s Spirit, but also the forces of evil. They are navigational and conceptual tools for the believer seeking to live in the presence of God. What David saw dimly—God’s great promises to redeem the nations through Israel—Jesus laid out in sharp focus.

In all his words, Jesus’ focus is on the person before God. He says very little about the Samaritans, the Gentiles, or the Romans—indeed about any political or social issue. His opposition to the Pharisees seems to be their short-circuiting of an individual’s response to God through their emphasis on rules and institutions. Jesus sees human beings who need mercy and healing. He calls individuals to join him in his ministry.

**

The gospel writers left us with a few short fragments of prayer from Jesus. The only long prayer, comparable to one of David’s prayers, is John 17.

That prayer is stylistically quite different from any of David’s prayers, but its mode of thought is very similar. Perhaps this would be true of any Jewish prayer, since David’s prayers had pervaded their worship. Jesus talks to God the Father in a simple, direct way, as though to a friend or an ally. “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you.” (John 17:25) Jesus speaks openly about his situation (he is about to die), and he asks God to act on his behalf without any doubt that God can do what he needs done. Not only does Jesus speak to God from within a very intimate and personal relationship, he asks God to draw his disciples into the same kind of relationship.

Jesus’s brief prayers on the day of his death could easily have come straight out of David’s mouth.

In Gethsemane, he prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)

Three short prayers are recorded from the cross.

“Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34)

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

These all show the same personal encounter with a living God, the same powerful emotion as one of David’s prayers. As a matter of fact, the last two prayers are David’s prayers. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is the first verse of Psalm 22, and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” is the fifth verse of Psalm 31.

I’ve come to believe that these are far from random quotations. Both of the psalms deal with David under attack from his enemies. They juxtapose trust in God with the horrors of betrayal and slander and death. I think Jesus, who prayed the psalms all his life, was praying these prayers on the cross. Out loud he spoke only one verse of each, but he surely knew the whole prayer by heart.

Psalm 22 is particularly of interest, because “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is often cited as Jesus’ cry of inconceivable despair. Could God really abandon him? Apparently he believed so, for he took this prayer of David in his mouth.

When Jesus prayed this prayer, he was remembering that he walked in David’s footsteps. Silently, to himself, he was walking in David’s faith. For Psalm 22, after detailing violence that sounds like a lynching, suddenly turns. Without explanation, praise breaks out. Rescue has come, and the benefits have spread to the poor. Rescue has come, and it has drawn the whole world into praise.

Jesus prayed as David prayed, and in that prayer he lived the life of faith that David had explored.

**

From David the poet we learn the importance of artful words. David was a great poet in the service of prayer and worship. He shaped the nation of Israel through his words; he set the heart of worship so that Jesus himself borrowed from his prayers at his time of ultimate torment. Our tendency is to think that politics and programs and organization best serve the kingdom of God. David’s life offers evidence that careful and beautiful writing can do far more.

We must learn to pray like David: with passion and transparency, to a personal God who has power to rescue. In that way we will follow in the steps of Jesus, Son of David.

 

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Pulitzer Proud

April 20, 2018

I’m so proud that my local newspaper, the Press Democrat, won the Pulitzer Prize for news reporting. It’s a great newspaper, and a huge asset to our community. Take a look at  this photo, which was on the front page of the paper announcing the win. It captures joy and surprise so wonderfully! These reporters worked incredibly hard covering the fires, and as this is not the golden age of newspaper journalism, their joy has special significance to me.pulitzer

David: The Un-Saul

April 9, 2018

This is the third in a series on the life of David.

In telling the story of David, the Bible devotes a great deal of space to the period when he was “anointed, not crowned.” Presumably, there is a reason for this emphasis. Presumably, this is a crucial period of David’s life, even though he held no official position and, for much of the time, lived as a fugitive, chased from one place to another. It was a miserable time, a hungry time, a friendless and powerless time.

Throughout this period, David’s life revolved around King Saul, who learned to hate and fear him. They were like twin stars, orbiting each other, held in place by the other’s gravity. Saul gave David his first chance. David’s success at that chance—killing Goliath—led Saul into his own personal nightmare. In this bad dream David sought to serve Saul, but Saul sought to kill David—to eliminate his nightmare.

It would be nice if Saul could be neatly summarized as, say, an evil genius like James Bond’s Dr. No, or a tyrant like Mussolini, or a corrupt and greedy leader like (you name him). Saul, however, is none of these. He is hard to sum up, full of contradictions.

Saul’s early career is eerily like David’s. Both men were nobodies, inexperienced at war or leadership, when Samuel found them and quietly anointed them. Both men gained political support due to their military prowess. Saul, however, became weaker and more desperately grasping the longer he lived; while David gained in stature throughout Saul’s reign. Reading the text, we encounter one man going down while the other rises.

We first encounter Saul as he is sent off to find the family donkeys. Saul was extremely good looking, the text says (1 Samuel 9:2), and a head taller than anybody else. He seems to be a likable bumbler, unable to track the donkeys and unaware of who the great leader Samuel is or where he lives. He only approaches Samuel because he hopes he can help him locate his donkeys.

Unbeknownst to Saul, God has told Samuel that Israel’s future king is about to be revealed. When Saul appears on his donkey quest, God instructs Samuel, “This is the one.” It’s a close parallel to David’s anointing, when David is he surprise pick from among his older brothers.

Samuel takes charge of Saul. He brushes aside the donkeys—don’t worry, they have been found—and tells Saul that he and his family line are now the focal point of Israel’s longing. When Saul stammers out a modest demurral, Samuel pays no attention. He takes him to a feast as the guest of honor, and then privately anoints him. As a seal of guarantee, he tells Saul whom he will meet on the road, and what they will say. Saul’s final encounter, Samuel says, will be with a procession of prophets, making wild music as they march along. “The Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophecy with them, and you will be changed into a different person.” (1 Samuel 10:6)

It happened just as Samuel had predicted. Saul, we are told, met the prophets and was a changed man, though nobody else knew it. Samuel called the leaders of Israel to a meeting, where he reminded them of their demand for a king. Without introducing Saul, he led a discernment process that began by narrowing the field by tribe, then by clan, then by individual. How this process worked we are not told, but it was probably using some kind of lottery. Saul’s tribe (Benjamin) was chosen, then his clan, then Saul himself. But when they looked around them, Saul was missing. He had hidden himself among the baggage, and had to be dragged into view. When Samuel presented him as Israel’s new monarch, some of the people shouted, “Long live the King!” But others were skeptical, resisting his leadership.

At this point, what did Saul have in his favor? He was tall and good-looking, and Samuel had declared him the one God had chosen. But he had done nothing—not even found the donkeys.

That changed promptly, however, when word came of an Ammonite gang besieging an Israelite city and demanding, as peace terms, that every male have an eye gouged out. People in Saul’s home town were grief-stricken and helpless at the news, but when Saul came in from plowing, “The Spirit of God came powerfully upon him, and he burned with anger.” (11:6) He mustered a large army (300,000 men) and scattered the Ammonites.

After that, it was obvious to all that Samuel’s (and God’s) choice was right. There were calls to punish the men who had resisted his leadership, but Saul was gracious. “No one will be put to death today, for this day the Lord has rescued Israel.” (11:12) In a great celebration, the whole nation crowned Saul as their king.

**

It was a promising beginning. Fear spoiled it. Saul, having been boosted so high by God’s choice and his Spirit, became obsessed with the fear of losing what he had been given. He forgot that everything came by God’s generosity. Trying to hold on at all costs, he squeezed too tight.

Fear first took over in a battle situation. A large Philistine army invaded, and Saul’s overwhelmed army began deserting. Saul was waiting for Samuel to arrive and conduct a religious service as a prelude to battle. When Samuel didn’t come Saul panicked, making the sacrifices himself. He pushed himself into a role that was reserved for priests, and for his pains was soundly condemned by Samuel. “Your kingdom will not endure,” Samuel said, “…because you have not kept the Lord’s command.” (13:14).

It’s clear that Saul didn’t want to take on the priest’s role. But in fear, he did.

Israel was in desperate condition. The “army” was a volunteer guerrilla force that lacked weapons. The occupying Philistines controlled all blacksmiths, which meant an effective embargo on iron spears or swords. Many Israelites were living in hiding; some actually fled the country because of Philistine aggression. In addition, 1 Samuel 14:21 reveals that some Israelite soldiers had gone over to the Philistine side.

It was no small thing when Saul’s son Jonathan attacked a Philistine outpost and created a panic in the Philistine army. Saul recognized what was happening, rallied the army to attack, and followed up with a massive victory—one that drew men out of hiding to join the attack, and even got the traitor Israelites to opportunistically switch sides.

In the midst of this great triumph, Saul managed to spoil it, however. This is the second major episode of his failure. In his enthusiasm for battle he had sworn that no soldier in his army would eat until the battle was won. To put the kindest construction on it, Saul demonstrated his inexperience in combat, for troops are easily exhausted and need food whenever they can get it. The troops kept the vow, but were famished and exhausted by the end of the day; they gave up pursuing the Philistines because of it, and slaughtered animals for a barbecue without following kosher requirements. Saul set them on a more correct path by organizing a kosher butchery, and then pondered the question whether the army could and should continue the pursuit. When he asked God for guidance, however, he got none. This was evidently Saul’s first experience of the silence of God. He knew something was wrong. Someone had sinned, and Saul swore that however it was—even his own son—would die.

He discovered that his son Jonathan was responsible. He had grabbed a lick of wild honey during the battle. At the time, Jonathan had no idea that his father had forbidden any food. He had been too busy fighting to get the news.

Yet Saul was ready to execute his son. He took another oath on it. The army, however, stopped him—by force, it seems. Saul was made to give in, and also give up on pursuing the Philistines while he had them on the run.

What stands out in the incident is Saul’s awareness of others’ faults—the men eating non-kosher meat, his son Jonathan violating an oath he wasn’t even aware of—but with no consciousness of his own. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that it was his hasty vow that led to the others’ violations.

Did fear play a role? I think so. An inexperienced leader, he feared failure and tried to overcompensate, first by making a foolhardy oath, and then by brashly rushing into its enforcement. Saul was a brave and effective general. If he had been content to let his Spirit-given abilities play out, he would have done well. His fear of failure, however, led him to make foolish and hasty miscalculations—to try too hard, to do too much.

His greatest miscalculation, however, came in a third incident—one we find very hard to understand. God sent instructions through Samuel that Saul was to pursue holy war against the Amalekites, a neighboring tribe, and utterly destroy them. Everyone was to die: men, women and children, and even the Amalekites’ sheep, goats, camels and cattle.

Why? Unlike war against the Philistines, this is not presented as a defensive war. Rather, an ancient incident is blamed—the Amalekites’ hijacking of Israel when they were on the long journey from Egypt to Israel.

That hijacking, sinister as it was, happened long before the current generation of Amalekites was born. God’s command is not punishment, but something more like ethnic cleansing. Something about the Amalekites’ very nature is wrong, and must be eliminated.

I’ll say frankly that I have no idea why God would want this. All kinds of excuses and explanations for God’s decision have been offered, and you are welcome to explore them in the many commentaries that have been written on this passage. Personally, I haven’t found any of them convincing.

On the other hand, I don’t believe in the least that this passage proves, as some would suggest, that the Old Testament God is a bloodthirsty tribal god. There are far too many counter indications throughout the Scriptures that he is a God of love and mercy. I am left unable to explain this execution of a people. I don’t want to downplay it or attempt to excuse it. I can only hope and expect that someday I will understand it, perhaps in the life to come.

Saul doesn’t appear to have shared my reservations about God’s command. He carried out the worst of it—the murder of innocent children—without apparent qualms. However, he failed to obey God’s order in two specifics: he didn’t execute the king of the Amalekites, and he didn’t slaughter the best of the animals.

When Samuel confronted him, Saul pleaded that he had saved the animals for sacrifice. After Samuel kept on the pressure Saul admitted that he had sinned and confessed his true motives: “I was afraid of the men, and so I gave in to them.” (1 Samuel 15:24)

In ancient warfare armies got paid by taking booty from their conquests. Saul’s men would have expected this as their reward for putting their lives at risk. Whether or not Saul even tried to explain the situation to them, we don’t know. He probably just assumed that they would resent being asked to give up their captured goods. That is what fear often does to us: we jump to conclusions.

**

It’s worth recalling that in all three of these incidents, Saul was militarily successful. It was not his failure that did him in, it was his failure to handle success.

When David comes into the picture, we see more of the same. Israel once again seems desperate, and out of the blue a young warrior appears and saves the day. David appears perfectly loyal. He makes no attempt to undermine Saul or to raise his own profile.

What sends Saul into a tizzy is a song. The women serenade the conquering army with a bewitching chant:

Saul has slain his thousands,

And David his tens of thousands.

Saul was furious, and the next day he tried to put a spear through David. Twice David eluded him. Oddly, David is not said to be afraid of Saul; it is the other way around. “Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with David but had departed from Saul.” (1 Samuel 18:12) Saul had everything to gain from David, a great and loyal commander, and nothing to fear, but instead he plotted against him.

At first these plots are covert—he sets up David to be killed by the Philistines—but eventually they become overt. He sends men to murder David in his bed. David escapes. Alone and hungry, he begs food from the priest at Nob. The priest kindly helps him. That will end tragically, in the slaughter of all Nob’s priestly family at the hands of Saul. Saul strikes out blindly against anything associated with David.

In a measure of how desperate David is, he seeks refuge with the enemy, the Philistines at Gath. Remember, not very long before he had killed the Philistines’ champion—whose home town was Gath. David would never go to Gath for help, if he had any choice. Yet this act of despair doesn’t work, either. The Philistines immediately suspect him, and he only escapes by pretending to be insane, drooling and babbling.

Hiding in a cave, David is joined by his family members—whose lives are now also at risk from Saul—and a collection of debtors and malcontents. Eventually they number about 400 men, a sort of Robin Hood’s band.

With David exiled in the wilderness, Saul could ignore him. Instead he throws his army into David’s pursuit.

When David hears that the Philistines are attacking Keilah, he wants to mount a rescue mission. His men see this as too risky, but David pursues the question and is told by God to go ahead. He and his men attack the Philistines and rescue Keilah.

Saul immediately thinks that David can be trapped in the walled city. He sends troops, and when David hears that they are coming, he asks God whether the citizens of Keilah, who have just been rescued, will betray him. Yes, they will, God says.

So David and his men again disappear into the wilderness. He and his men are friendless and homeless. What can they eat? Where are they safe? The story of Abigail (1 Samuel 25) is usually told to emphasize Abigail’s sagacity in contrast to her foolish, boorish husband. But the story also reveals David’s hair-trigger temper. Yes, Nabal insults his men when they come asking for hospitality. But David could have brushed off the abuse. Instead, he sets off on a mission to slaughter, not just Nabal, but every male in his household. Abigail’s humble appeal saves David from a bloody retribution that would have stained his soul for life.

Why did David respond so violently to Nabal’s stupid insult? David had no allies, and not enough food. He was desperate. He had no margins. People in that condition fly off the handle.

Saul sends his army to hunt for him. It’s during two of his search-and-destroy missions that we get the most dramatic contrasts between David and Saul.

In the first, Saul goes into a cave to relieve himself. Unknown to him, David and his men are hiding out deeper in the cave. While Saul is squatting, David’s men urge him to attack. David creeps forward and, in the silent darkness, cuts off a piece of Saul’s robe. He refuses to do more. In fact, David feels guilty for even cutting Saul’s robe. “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” (1 Samuel 24:6)

David can’t resist following Saul out of the cave, however. He calls out to him, “My Lord the king!” and bows down, face to the ground. Then he shows Saul the piece of the robe, and tries to convince Saul that he intends no harm; in fact, he has refused to hurt him even when he was completely in his power. “May the Lord be our judge and decide between us. May he consider my cause and uphold it; may he vindicate me by delivering me from your hand.” (24:15)

To Saul’s credit, he weeps loudly and calls David “my son.” “You are more righteous than I,” he says. “You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly.” (24:17) “May the Lord reward you well for the way you treated me today. I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands.” (vv. 19, 20) Despite the warm and penitent words, David doesn’t trust Saul. He returns to “the stronghold”—the wilderness fort where he and his men have established camp.

The second incident is almost, but not quite, a duplicate. Once again Saul is hunting for David. Once again, the local people have betrayed David and told Saul where to find him. This time David goes to Saul’s camp and, with one of his men, sneaks inside the perimeter. They go right up to where Saul is sleeping. Abishai, David’s companion, wants to spear Saul where he lies, but David says no. “Who can lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless?”

Instead, David takes Saul’s spear and his water jug, and creeps out of the sleeping camp. From a nearby hill he calls down to Abner, Saul’s army chief. “Where are the king’s spear and water jug that were near his head?” (1 Samuel 26:16)

“Saul recognized David’s voice and said, ‘Is that your voice, David my son?’”

David pleads eloquently for Saul to stop pursuing him. “What have I done, and what wrong am I guilty of? … Now do not let my blood fall to the ground far from the presence of the Lord.” (26:18,20)

Saul replies, “I have sinned. Come back, David my son. Because you considered my life precious today, I will not try to harm you again. Surely I have acted like a fool and have erred greatly.” (v. 21)

David responds that he will trust in God’s protection, for God “rewards every man for his righteousness and faithfulness.” But he declines Saul’s offer to accompany him home.

**

Saul, as revealed in these two incidents, is well aware of his own guilt. He confesses it in a heartfelt, perhaps sentimental way in front of his army. Evidently, however, his fear outweighs his conscience. He keeps reverting to the desire to destroy David.

Despite Saul’s penitent words, David stays in his wilderness fortress. He doesn’t trust Saul. He has come to understand that Saul is in the grip of irrational fears.

Not once but twice, God puts David in a position to kill Saul. Why doesn’t David take advantage of Saul’s vulnerability? He not only doesn’t take it, he speaks reverently of “the Lord’s anointed.”

It sounds crazy. He, David, is “the Lord’s anointed.” He must know that God has rejected Saul. Why not act as the Lord’s instrument? Why not kill Saul and be done with this torment?

Undoubtedly, David’s men and his family wondered the same thing. It’s not clear how David would have answered them. What is very clear is his deep reverence for the sovereignty of God. He believes that God’s choice of Saul must be respected, and that his own anointing does not constitute a permission slip to bring about his own coronation. He will wait. He will trust God to vindicate him.

Fear did not master him. He is the opposite of Saul in this respect. He trusted in God. He was unwilling to assail or assault any person whom God had chosen.

**

After their second close encounter, David and Saul parted, never to see each other again. David, concluding that “one of these days I will be destroyed by the hand of Saul” (1 Samuel 27:1), returned to his enemies the Philistines. This time he and his 600 men were accepted as mercenaries. Achish the king of Gath saw David as an outlaw who had permanently broken ties with Israel. David played a double game, raiding other tribes for the Philistines but making sure they never found out that he never raided Israel. His scheme nearly backfired when he was called into the main Philistine army as they went to war against Israel, but fortunately for David, other generals in the army distrusted him and sent him away. He was saved from having to fight his own people.

Saul, on the other hand, left his imagined enemy—David—and confronted his true enemy, the Philistine army. When they invaded once again, Saul “was afraid; terror filled his heart.” (1 Samuel 28:5) He sought God’s guidance, but “The Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.” (28:6)

Saul told his men to find him a medium, who could communicate with the dead. The funny thing about this request is that Saul himself had banned such consultation, making it punishable by death. Nevertheless, Saul found a medium, persuaded her to do her work, and asked for Samuel. If he could not reach God, he thought the next-best thing was the man who talked to God.

When Samuel appeared—or seemed to appear, for only the woman “saw” him or “heard” him—Saul prostrated himself. He laid out to Samuel the terrible dilemma he was in—that the Philistines were attacking and God had turned away. Samuel—or “Samuel”—was not sympathetic. He told Saul it was exactly as he had predicted, that his string had run out, that he and his army would lose the battle and he and his sons would die.

“Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, filled with fear.” (28:20) For most of his monarchy, Saul had been ruled by fear. It was so until the end. When the battle came, his sons were killed, he was wounded, and, fearful of Philistine torture, he killed himself.

**

For the longest time, David is friendless and vulnerable and must wander in the wilderness. He has no palace; he lives in a cave, or in a wilderness hideout under all weather. What stands out in this long narrative is David’s refusal to advance his cause by force, and his persistent refusal to do harm to “the Lord’s anointed,” even as “the Lord’s anointed” tries to kill him. Notably, David never refers to himself as “the Lord’s anointed,” but he often refers to Saul that way—even when he knows that Saul has been rejected, and that he has been chosen to replace Saul. He does nothing against Saul, even when he has a golden opportunity.

Who can imagine doing likewise? If somebody is trying to kill me, I am likely to fight back. David would not. He believed that God would work his will without David needing to move it along. He was willing to wait and to trust God. Evidently he saw mysterious and sacred qualities in the (discredited) leader whom God had once chosen.

And David’s son? Jesus’ life is certainly an echo of David’s. For Jesus was born into Israel, where the “anointed”—the temple, the priests, the altar—had been chosen by God as his means of salvation. Jesus knew that he represented a new covenant that would rise up and eclipse the old system. Furthermore, he knew that the old system—or its representatives—wanted to kill him.

He would not touch them. He spoke to them sharply, and truthfully. He warned that the temple would be torn down. (Matthew 24:1) But he never laid a hand on the representatives of the old order, or threatened violence. On the contrary, he was respectful. He told Peter to pay the temple tax. (Matthew 17:27) When he saw a poor widow giving sacrificially to the temple offering, he didn’t condemn it as oppression, but admired it as generosity. (Luke 21:1) A man with leprosy whom Jesus healed was told to go to the priest to give thanks. (Matthew 8:4)

For it was temple, priest and altar that had, for many generations, by God’s own anointing, represented God to the people. Jesus might have deprecated them to his disciples, might have organized a boycott, might have announced that they were out of date and that God had moved on. He didn’t.

(Notably, Jesus showed no such solicitude for the web of legal requirements that had grown up around the law. When asked why his disciples didn’t keep the ceremonial requirements of Sabbath, he referred to David, who had eaten the (unlawful) tabernacle bread when hungry and in fear for his life. “I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.” (Matthew 12:6))

Like David, Jesus wandered from place to place. He had “nowhere to lay his head.” He depended on charity for food. Like David, he had been anointed king, but no king ever held fewer prerogatives.

Nor did Jesus do anything to seize power. That’s the burden of his temptations. Satan offers him opportunity to demonstrate that he is God’s Son, the anointed. He can make bread from stones, leap from the temple unharmed, assume the power and splendor of the kingdoms of the world. He doesn’t choose to do it. It’s not God’s timing. (Luke 4:1-13) He will later make bread out of nothing, walk on water, and assume “all authority in heaven and on earth.” But all on God’s calendar.

Part of the horror of Holy Week is that his tormentors, those who track him down to kill him, include God’s anointed ones—priests. To defend their standing (and to defend the Temple, they would say) they will arrest him and rig a trial. They will see him tortured to death. They live in fear that he will replace them.

When they send soldiers to arrest him, he tells his disciples to put up their weapons. He will not fight them. It’s an exact echo of David’s words to his men when they had Saul in their grip. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said. “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53) Jesus could have annihilated his enemies. He had them in his power.

Like the citizens of Keilah, rescued by David but ready to surrender him to Saul’s army, so the people of Jerusalem, who rejoiced in Jesus’ entry, were willing to give him up when he was on trial. (They either kept their peace or chanted, “Crucify him!”)

They were all ruled by their fears. They saw how much they had to lose and they were frantic to keep it. Jesus was also afraid, but he was not ruled by his fear. He trusted in God. He trusted all the way down—even to death. God had anointed him. God would see him triumphant.

**

Let’s admit that it’s very odd behavior. Who is willing to be executed without making any attempt to defend himself? Who doesn’t seek to explain himself when on trial for his life?

And yet, it echoes the pattern followed by David, the great king, when he was pursued through the wilderness by the very man he sought to serve. And it is not so different from what Paul recommends to all of us: “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:18-21)

1 Peter says much the same thing: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.  …When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:21-23)

David: The Warrior

March 27, 2018

This is the second in a series on the life of David.

David and Goliath is a great story, worthy of being told and retold. Its appeal depends on the underdog mindset. Here’s the kid who won’t take no for an answer, who doesn’t realize he’s outmatched by the giant. We identify with the kid. Most of us lack perfect confidence, and at work or school or in sports we feel like we face giants. David inspires us because he is the little guy who triumphs.

Even though David had been anointed by Samuel, he remained a nobody—a boy herding sheep, while his brothers went off to fight in the army. David doesn’t see himself as just a sheepherder, however. He has a warrior’s self-image. When he is sent as a messenger boy, carrying provisions to his brothers on the battle line, he can’t keep his nose out of the fighting.

Actually, there isn’t any fighting. The army is in a stalemate, occupying the ridge on one side of a valley, while the Philistines occupy the other. Neither one is prepared to charge up the other’s hill—it’s always easiest to fight while looking down on your opponent–so they have dug in to watch and wait.

The Philistines, though, are engaged in psychological warfare. They have a giant, a huge man named Goliath, who comes out every morning to the valley between the camps and challenges the Israelites to send somebody down to fight him. This represents an ancient form of warfare, where each side sends a representative and they fight it out. Perhaps it came from a traditional belief that warfare was really a test of the gods of each nation, who controlled the results in a supernatural way. If so, the Philistines have stacked the odds in their god’s favor by sending out a giant. He terrifies the Israelites. When he comes out, soldiers run in panic. He is just too big, too strong.

David, though, doesn’t seem to understand the situation. He ought to be terrified, but he is so sure of himself he is already calculating his payoff. He immediately wants to know what reward will go to the man who kills Goliath.

His brother Eliab reams him out for this clueless impertinence, but David just keeps asking about the rewards he can expect.

Saul hears of it and sends for David, who has the chutzpah to reassure the king that he shouldn’t lose heart; he, David, plans to fight the giant.

Saul explains to this ignorant child that he can’t take on a veteran warrior. David responds that he has fought lions and bears, and he will defeat Goliath because “he has defied the armies of the living God.” (1 Samuel 17:36) God, David says, will deliver him.

Saul thinks, “Why not?” He has no other plan in mind to defeat the Philistines. He puts his armor on David, but David walks around in it and decides he can’t use it; he isn’t used to its weight. Instead, wearing street clothes, he picks up several stones and goes out with his sling to face the giant.

Goliath taunts him. “Come here,” he says to the puny boy, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.”

As Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his book David and Goliath, the key words may be “Come here.” Goliath is so weighed down with armor he can barely move. He can’t pursue David. He can only fight if David comes within range.

David has no intention of coming near Goliath. He has a deadly weapon that is effective from a distance. Goliath may seem invincible, but in reality he is a sitting duck. What seem to be his greatest advantages—his size, his heavy armor—actually work against him. Perhaps David knows that Goliath is all but dead.

As he prepares to use his sling, David pauses to make a speech, in which he gives no credit whatsoever to his superior weaponry or his skill. Rather he praises his God:

“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. This day the LORD will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” (1 Samuel 17:45-47)

In essence David says that weaponry doesn’t matter; what matters is God. He then proceeds to demonstrate that skill helps too, centering a rock into Goliath’s forehead. Goliath falls face forward, David grabs Goliath’s sword, then cuts off Goliath’s head. At the sight of David’s victory the whole Israelite army rushes into battle. Shocked by their hero’s death, the Philistines turn and run. The battle is a complete rout, and the Philistine threat is (for the moment) removed.

King Saul asks Abner, the head of the army, to find out who the young champion is. Saul should recognize David, who has been playing his harp for Saul to calm his nerves. But evidently Saul has not bothered to take a good look at David. He has sent David out to die without even troubling to learn his name. Saul is a careless man. Abner brings in the young warrior, with David still holding Goliath’s severed head, and his clothes grisly with Goliath’s blood. Visually, it’s one of the most stunning scenes in the Bible, comparable to Elijah facing the prophets of Baal, or Jesus facing Pilate.

“Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asks mildly.

**

David was a fighting man. It was the key to his leadership, the one skill that everything else depended on. His reputation as a soldier began with his defeat of Goliath, the Philistine champion, and it grew as he demonstrated his abilities to lead the army. Military prowess made David.

Some people claim that a person’s character is already visible, at least embryonically, from a very young age. It’s certainly true that David shows, in his victory over Goliath, qualities that will characterize him as a warrior. First, he is eager to fight. When the entire army is cowed by the giant, his only question is what reward he can expect for killing him. He never hesitates. He runs toward Goliath, not away.

Second, he is personally confident but not self-centered. Warriors can be braggarts, but David centers his confidence in God, whom he gives all credit for victory. When God’s name is at stake—and it always is, when Israel is threatened—God will surely prevail, David believes.

Third, David is a skilled warrior. He kills Goliath on the first shot.

The nation fell in love with David. Women met the returning army with singing and dancing, using lyrics that would soon spread far and wide:

“Saul has slain his thousands,
And David his tens of thousands.”

Saul hated it, but soon his own family joined the chorus. Jonathan, his brilliant warrior-son “loved [David] as himself.” Saul’s daughter Michal fell in love with David and wanted to marry him.

Sensing a potential rival, and fearful of David’s popularity, Saul made a dreadful mistake. To get rid of David, he began sending him out with the army, to lead the most dangerous campaigns. From Saul’s perspective it was a way to get David out of town. More importantly, it put David in mortal danger. The tactic backfired because David—just a boy, remember—proved to be a fantastic commander.

In our era, with Americans bogged down in a series of inconclusive wars, we don’t have many war heroes. We easily forget that successful generals have often quickly vaulted into prominent political roles. Dwight Eisenhower went from top American general in World War II to two-term president. George Washington commanded America’s revolutionary army and then was elected America’s first president. Ulysses Grant’s prosecution of the Civil War made him so fantastically popular he was a shoo-in as a two-term president, even though he had no political experience. (And it showed.)

You don’t gain fame by losing. David won. Saul’s officers were pleased by David gaining high rank (1 Samuel 18:5)—a remarkable fact considering that he was younger than they were, and that he must have leaped over some in rank. The women danced and sang in praise of David, as already noted. (verse 6) “All Israel and Judah loved David, because he led them in their campaigns.” (verse 16)

Israel had been on the verge of utter decimation, their army unmanned before a giant. Out of nowhere appears a young shepherd who defeats the giant, and then goes on to lead the army in one victory after another. Suddenly there is hope, all tied up with this young shepherd.

No wonder Saul is afraid. Not one to learn quickly, he plunges ahead. Saul indulging in an elaborate plan to get David to take more risks. He offers his daughter Michal to David in marriage. David declines, probably because he knows Saul will expect a huge bride-price. Saul sends word that he doesn’t want money. He wants 100 Philistine foreskins.

This part of David’s life is not taught in Sunday school. For that matter, I don’t believe I have ever heard it mentioned in a sermon. David goes out with his men and kills not 100 but 200 Philistines. He personally presents their foreskins to the king, in order to win his daughter’s hand in marriage. It’s a grisly and distasteful scene, by modern standards. Cutting off foreskins is somewhat like cutting off scalps. There is a practical reason for the practice. Warriors have been known to exaggerate their body count. You can’t fake scalps or foreskins. It is also a desecration of their bodies, and a taunting insult.

As a result of his failed ruse, Saul grows even more afraid of David. (2 Samuel 18:29) This reaction says a lot about Saul. His kingdom has been saved by a young warrior, and his reaction is not celebration, but fear. Saul thinks small. He thinks of himself, first and always.

From this point on, Saul uses no subterfuge. Rather than hoping that the Philistines will kill David, he tries to kill him himself. David continues to succeed on the battle field, and to gain fame. He also carries on playing his harp for Saul. Saul takes up his spear and tries to pin David to the wall.

That night Saul sends his guard to David’s house to assassinate him, but David escapes through a window. From then on, David lived in hiding. He never again commanded troops in Saul’s army. He hid out in the wilderness, and ended up leading a band of misfits fighting for the Philistines, though never against Israel.

The terrible irony for Saul is that his real enemy, the Philistine army, ends up once again dominating Israel. God had sent Saul a great commander, but he chased him away. Leading the army himself, Saul is unable to turn the tide. His sons are killed in a great climactic battle, and Saul himself is grievously wounded. Rather than let himself be captured, Saul takes his own life. Israelites abandon their towns and the Philistines occupy them. The nation really is on the brink of obliteration.

**

David spent several years in exile—we don’t know exactly how long—running away from danger, trying to elude Saul. Eventually he and his men became mercenaries for the Philistines, raiding and plundering.

After Saul’s death and David’s coronation, David began another period leading Israel’s army. The book of 2 Samuel begins with David’s mourning for Saul after his death, and proceeds with David being anointed king by the men of his own tribe, Judah. After a long civil war between David’s tribe and Saul’s tribe, in which no mention is made of David’s fighting, David is proclaimed king over all Israel. In recognizing him, the tribal leaders specifically cite his military record under Saul. (2 Samuel 4:2) They also mention his anointing—that God had indicated his choice of David to become ruler.

David then leads the army to capture Jerusalem, a fortress thought to be impregnable. This crucial victory provides Israel with a capital city. It’s a neutral site that has never belonged to any of the Israelite tribes, so it can unite the nation.

Alarmed that the defeated Israelites have revived, the Philistines send in the army. David leads the Israelite army to twice defeat them. (5:17-25) Eventually, due to his military successes, the Philistines gave up trying to oppress Israel.

If you read all the historical materials related to David, you will see clearly that David’s fame was closely linked to his role as a warrior. 2 Samuel 8 lists his victories not only against the Philistines but also the Moabites, the Arameans, and the Edomites. Chapter 10 chronicles his defeat of the Ammonites. 2 Kings 21:15-23 briefly describes four different victories against the Philistines, the persistent foe.

In a great song of praise recorded in 2 Samuel 22 (and also given as Psalm 18) David says of God:

“He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze…. I pursued my enemies and crushed them; I did not turn back till they were destroyed. I crushed them completely, and they could not rise; they fell beneath my feet. You armed me with strength for battle; you made my adversaries bow at my feet. You made my enemies turn their backs in flight, and I destroyed my foes. They cried for help, but there was no one to save them—to the Lord, but he did not answer. I beat them as fine as the dust of the earth; I pounded and trampled them like mud in the streets.” (verses 35-43)

David’s mighty fighting men are listed and described in 2 Samuel 23:8-39. 1 Chronicles 10:10-47, which also lists them, says that “they, together with all Israel, gave [David’s] kingship strong support to extend it over the whole land, as the Lord had promised.” Chapter 12 lists groups of fighters that joined David when he was in exile and after he was crowned as king. Chapters 18, 19 and 20 chronicle various wars that David and his men fought and won.

The point is, a great deal of what the Bible tells us about David involves fighting. It was an absolutely necessary component of leadership. If your nation is on the brink, you have to fight and win.

**

Jesus, Son of David, was not a warrior like David. The contrast is extreme. One cannot imagine Jesus carrying around the dismembered head of his enemy, or slapping down 200 foreskins from his mutilated foes. Jesus stood against physical violence. Several times his disciples wanted to fight, but he always told them no.

Once his disciples were rebuffed in a Samaritan village. Incensed by the Samaritans’ inhospitality, James and John asked Jesus if they should call down fire on the village. Perhaps they meant, “Should we curse them? Should we ask God to destroy them?” In a modern context, they would be summoning helicopter gunships to lay down napalm.

Jesus’ response was simply to rebuke his disciples—not the Samaritans. (Luke 9:51-55)

For most of his life, Jesus stayed away from trouble. He traveled lightly, depending on local hospitality, and he trained his disciples to turn the other cheek when they were assaulted. The Romans occupied his country, and many Israelites considered them to be the enemy, but Jesus actually doesn’t show much interest in opposing Romans. The few he encounters, he treats as individuals—recognizing the faith of a centurion, for example. (Matthew 8:5-13) The Roman collaborators, the tax collectors, he joins for dinner.

The potential for violence grew as Jesus approached Jerusalem. At least some of Jesus’ disciples were armed, and when Judas and his men approached Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples asked, “Lord, should we strike them with our swords?” One of them did just that, awkwardly missing and cutting off a man’s ear. Jesus told him to stop, and actually healed the ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

The climax came when Jesus stood on trial, and the Roman governor, Pilate, tried to make sense of the charge that Jesus was a king.

“Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight….’

“’You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.

“Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’” (John 18:36-37)

The statement, “My kingdom is not of this world” has often been interpreted to mean, “My kingdom is spiritual and otherworldly.” That cannot be the proper understanding. The Jesus who tramped over Israel laying hands on cripples and feeding crowds was not otherworldly. As Tom Wright has said, Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t come from this world, but it is for this world. Kingdom people don’t fight because heaven offers a better way to further God’s kingdom and care for this world.
Kingdom power comes through truth. The evidence of that was not visible to Pilate, who immediately asked, “What is truth?” But history has proven Jesus correct. Jesus came to earth to testify to the truth. He is still loved and obeyed. He still has an army. Pilate is nothing. He has no lasting power.

This is what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:4)

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:12-17)

Paul, instructed by Jesus, took up better weapons than David knew.

**

It is important to understand that the Son of David is like David: he fights. Jesus is a warrior, but he uses better weapons than David’s. He fights against what invades God’s good creation and threatens to destroy it.

David’s weapons are inferior because, as Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” David was a great warrior with sling and arrow and sword, and he saved Israel for a time, but the calamity of deadly force never left Israel. Eventually, the Assyrians and the Babylonians and the Romans came along. Israel died by the sword.

One can object, of course, that Jesus’ kingdom hasn’t won all its battles either. An element of mystery and faith comes into play when we try to grasp Jesus’ power. Jesus said he had overcome the world, and we have to take his word for it—or not.

There can be no doubt at all, however, that violence is not effective in the long run. It always leads to more.

We are, therefore, not to follow David’s way, fighting our enemies with violence. We are, however, to imitate David as warriors—people eager to fight.

Like Jesus, who never dodged a fight. Who took on the sick and the demon-possessed and those decked by sin, and healed them. Who witnessed to the truth wherever he went, and with whomever he met. Jesus was a bold warrior who won. Wherever he went, people marveled because they saw him liberating others from whatever held them captive.

Like Jesus, who showed absolute confidence yet never tooted his horn. He relied on his heavenly Father and he pointed his followers that way. He trusted God, even when facing a rigged trial and execution. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”

Like Jesus, a skilled warrior whose witness captivated men and women from all walks of life; who never failed in his attempts to heal; who commanded his band of disciples with magnificent direction and led them to victory.

Jesus used entirely different weapons, but he was the son of David.

 

David: Anointed

March 16, 2018

In January and February I taught a 7-week class on the life of David. As I prepared each week I found myself deeply engrossed. I got a whole new perspective that I’d like to share. This is the first in a series of occasional blog posts–pretty long ones–that take up facets of David’s life and consider how they prefigure the Son of David, Jesus.

David was anointed. Before the Bible tells us anything about his character or his personality, before we see him in action and grasp his capacity for leadership, we hear that Samuel, at God’s instruction, anointed him. It’s a tale that’s often recounted in sermons and Sunday school lessons, because it offers high drama and a great punch line. What is usually missed is what happened after the anointing—or, more precisely, what didn’t happen.

Here is the story: God tells Samuel, the judge and leader of Israel, to stop grieving over Saul, the king whom God has rejected. God sends Samuel to Bethlehem, to Jesse and his eight sons. Samuel is afraid to go, and the elders who meet him in the city are frightened when he arrives. Their fear of arousing Saul’s jealousy is strong, and why not? Samuel is engaged in an act of treason. He is about to choose a new king while the old one is still strong and full of life. Nowhere and never is that a good way to maintain your health.

Samuel pretends he’s just there for a religious service, but Jesse brings his sons, one by one, in front of Samuel. One by one, they are rejected. These are not the ones God wants. David isn’t even present. He’s the youngest, out herding sheep. To his family, he’s insignificant. At Samuel’s insistence they bring him in, and God tells Samuel to anoint him.

What do we know about David at this point? What does Samuel know? Not much. David is young. He’s healthy and good looking. His father doesn’t think much of him. It’s not a great resume for becoming king.

Anointing is done with oil. It has to do with dedicating something to a particular purpose, much in the way that we might dedicate a room as a quiet place for reading, or dedicate a phone line for international calls. In the Pentateuch anointing always has to do with worship. The priests are anointed, and so are their clothes, and the altar in the tabernacle, and the bowls used in the tabernacle, as well as the other utensils, and the tabernacle itself. It is a symbolic way to announce, “These are special. These are set aside for something supremely important.”

Beginning in 1 Samuel, anointing applies to the king. After being anointed, David becomes supremely important, not an ordinary person. He is dedicated to extraordinary work.

The deep background is God’s disappointment with Israel’s leadership. Samuel had anointed King Saul, and Saul disappointed. Before Saul, there were leadership disappointments with Eli and his sons as well, and with Samuel’s sons. Leadership mattered because the nation was in deep trouble. Israel lived in a rough neighborhood, much as it does today. The Philistines, a more technologically advanced people, had invaded. Israel might be overrun by the Philistine army and obliterated—erased as a distinctive people. This is not paranoia. We know with hindsight that it happened to every single kingdom in the region. Ever meet a Gittite? An Ammonite?

The text is at pains to point out that Samuel had no input in choosing David. God overturned his initial idea that Eliab, the oldest son, was the right choice; and then, as one son after another was paraded before him, God rejected each one. We are told that “the Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) That is the great punchline in all the sermons and Sunday school lessons. We see the outside—the good looks, the charisma, the skills. God sees what is inside, and that is what he cares about. For anybody who ever lacked confidence, who lacked irresistible charm and effortless ability, this is great news. What matters is what is in your heart! A million inspirational self-help messages have been made from this.

This isn’t quite right. The Scriptural message isn’t actually meant to encourage people to try harder and believe more. The message is that God’s ways are inscrutable. We can’t see inside people, but he can. His judgments are beyond our skill set. This is God’s initiative. He does it through Samuel but without his help. God sees all and decides all.

I am very often reminded of this when I volunteer at the Redwood Gospel Mission’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. I am assigned to meet one-on-one with men who have entered the 10-month residential program. I love the job, partly because of pure fascination—these men have lived lives that are very different from mine. Also, as I get to know these men, I find I almost always enjoy them. We meet weekly over the course of months, and we get to know each other quite well.

However, I can’t tell you who will be able to stay clean and sober. Sometimes I get a pretty good idea who won’t. If they aren’t fully engaged with the program, if they have big doubts, they probably won’t succeed in it. However, those who seem to have no doubts also often fail. Kicking an addiction is extremely difficult. I can’t see inside them to know who has the character and will to change. I just do my part to help, and wait to see what time will reveal.

God knows exactly who has the stuff to begin a new life. He sees into each person’s heart. He saw into David’s and observed something the other brothers lacked—qualities to make a great king. Thus David was anointed—set apart to lead Israel.

**

At this point, the story of David’s anointing turns strange. The brothers and the father were present with Samuel at the anointing, but no announcement was made to the general public. No one made any attempt to publicize God’s choice. You might chalk this up to caution, since Saul would take violent exception to being replaced. Surely, though, if David is going to be king, sooner or later an announcement must be made. It never happens. For years to come David will serve as Saul’s personal musician, his army captain, his bete noire, his son-in-law, his son’s best friend. Rumors may suggest that David is God’s choice to be king, but never does David or anybody else blow a trumpet to announce what God has done.

The anointing appears powerless. It effects no change, not even within the family. When the Philistine giant Goliath is taunting Israel’s army, and David inquires what reward will go to someone who defeats him, his brother Eliab (the first one rejected) is fiercely critical: “He burned with anger at [David] and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.” (1 Samuel 17:28) Eliab shows no hint of respect for the brother he saw anointed by Samuel. He still sees him as the little sheepherder, with stuck-up ideas about himself.

In the years to come Saul makes David’s life misery. He is threatened, attacked, and forced to run for his life. He lives in the wilderness with a collection of misfits and renegades. David sends his parents into exile out of fear that they, too, will suffer on his behalf. (1 Samuel 22:3)

David makes no attempt whatsoever to change this state of affairs. Twice when Saul falls into his hands he refuses to take action. He could have killed Saul, but he won’t do it. He never refers to himself as the Lord’s anointed. He refers that way to Saul, repeatedly.

Thus we have one of the strangest interludes in the Bible, when God’s chosen king of Israel is on the run from God’s rejected king, and the chosen king does nothing to assert his dignity or his right. He merely tries to stay alive.

David introduces a way of life unique in the Old Testament, and with precious few parallels anywhere: “anointed, but not crowned.”

How long did this powerless interlude go? We can only guess how old David was when he was anointed. Sixteen? Twenty-one? Young enough to be dismissed as insignificant. We know that David was thirty when he was finally crowned king of Judah, and 37 when he was crowned over all Israel. Perhaps he lived “anointed but not crowned” for eight to ten years. Much of David’s reputation was built in this time, when he had nothing, lived on the run, gathered a rag-tag following, and waited.

In the United States, there’s a period between the election and the inauguration called the transition. These months are filled with preparation: possible appointees are interviewed, strategies are rehearsed. For David, the “transition” went on for years, not months, but David made no preparations to take charge.

**

In the New Testament you encounter a parallel: Jesus. It’s not an exact parallel. It’s an echo.

Jesus’ “anointing” came at his baptism. There God declared him “my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Instead of oil poured on the head, Jesus received the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The words do not seem to have been understood by the crowds, nor was the dove seen by many. As with David’s anointing, this was a dramatic event observed by only a few.

It came entirely at God’s initiative. John baptized with water, but God spoke and sent his Spirit. This came despite the fact that Jesus had effectively done nothing to qualify. In all four gospels, John’s baptism came at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, before he began preaching and healing. “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

For readers of the Old Testament, the words God uses to identify Jesus at his baptism are loaded with significance. God tells Moses, “Say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son.’” (Exodus 4:22) In the dramatic Psalm 2, God declares the king, the “anointed one,” as “my son.” (2:7) Simply put, these three things go together: the king, God’s son, the representative of the people of God.

When God calls Jesus “my beloved son” he is identifying him as the Messiah, the king who represents all God’s people.

And yet, as with David’s anointing, there is no follow through. There are no trumpets and no public declaration. There are no plans for the coronation. Jesus is unimpressive to his own family, who come to rein him in because they think he is out of his mind—a scene reminiscent of David’s dressing down by his brother.

Like David, Jesus has impressive enemies. The Pharisees and other religious leaders plot to kill him. Jesus keeps out of harm’s way (until the very end) but he doesn’t rally his own supporters to undermine his enemies. He’s critical of the Pharisees but makes no attempt to replace them in their leadership roles. Nor does he rally opposition to Herod or Pilate or any representative of the Roman empire.

When his home town tries to assassinate him, Jesus just slips away. That’s his strategy for overcoming his enemies: he avoids them.

The only time Jesus acts aggressively is when he charges into the temple with a whip. N.T. Wright is surely correct in asserting that this is a protest, not an insurrection. Jesus upsets business for a single day. What do you think happened to those sales booths the next day? I’m sure they were back at it. Jesus is making a point, but he’s not trying to take over the running of the temple.

Jesus is the true king, but he doesn’t act like it. He doesn’t fight. He doesn’t rule. His only regular activities, really, are proclaiming the truth—preaching—and healing the sick and disabled.

The demons recognized Jesus as the Son of God, and beggars called him the son of David. Yet the crowds that swarmed after Jesus and hung on his words were slow to see him as “the anointed.” When asked about the people’s thoughts, the disciples reported that people considered Jesus a reincarnation of John the Baptist, or one of the prophets. It was a breakthrough moment when Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

His anointing remained a doubtful matter up to the moment of Jesus’ death. “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘…Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’  In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.”’” (Matthew 27:39-43)

Jesus has never been crowned on earth. He has been crowned in heaven. Thus we say, in the apostles’ creed, “He ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of the father.”

Paul wrote, in regard to Jesus’ willing self-sacrifice on the cross,

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

“God exalted him to the highest place” is in the past tense, but “every knee should bow” is prospective. It has not yet occurred. That is why we continue to pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is God’s will (and should be ours) that everyone on earth acknowledge the anointed, and bow before him as king. That is how it is in heaven. But on earth, “the anointed” accepts being treated like a criminal, just as David was. He does not use kingly power to correct the situation. He does not destroy his enemies or announce his coronation.

**

David spent miserable years “anointed but not crowned”—a fugitive, without a home, alienated from his own country. What a life for the man anointed to be king! Even so, there is undeniable excitement in his life. It is a thrilling period, full of danger and hope. (The contrast with David’s utter wretchedness during his son Absalom’s rebellion is striking.)

Jesus life as “anointed but not crowned” was also trying. He had no home of his own, his own family and his own home town failed to respect him, he was constantly opposed by the most honored people in society. Jesus cried out in frustration, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

Despite the constant tension of Jesus’ life, it is a thrilling, engrossing story. We would not trade it for anything. Only it needs a resurrection.

We, too—like David, like Jesus–spend our lives “anointed but not crowned.” This is what people mean when they talk about the kingdom of God as “already not yet.” As Peter put it to the first generation of believers, “you are a chosen people.” Yet who can claim that Christians are masters of the universe? We struggle. We often feel homeless and out of place. We experience the pain of being mocked and opposed—and even more commonly we feel ignored and discounted. But we are God’s chosen!

Christians who are “not crowned” can become paranoid, exaggerating our persecution. (Of course, some Christians are persecuted. But in my observing, many more feel persecuted.) The normal response is to become aggressive—to take out after our enemies. We may call it standing our ground, but it easily fills up with verbal put-downs and hostile behavior. It turns from defending the truth to attack mode.

In his “anointed but not crowned” period David refused to take on his own vindication. He didn’t boast that he was God’s choice. (He never even mentioned it.) He respected the king, even while knowing that God had rejected him. He tried to stay out of conflict. When he had the king in his sights, he refused to pull the trigger. He trusted God to crown him, in his own time and his own way.

Similarly Jesus. He knew (and said) the leadership of Israel was rotten. They conspired against him, but he didn’t respond in kind. He did not campaign for Messiah; on the contrary, he usually told people to keep quiet about what he had done for them. Even when tried on phony evidence, tortured, mocked and executed, his mind was not on the unfairness, but on forgiveness. He trusted God to deliver his crown. He never took it in his own hands.

We will be crowned. That is the absolute, unhesitating promise of scripture.

“Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:8)

“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)

“And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” (1 Peter 5:4)

“Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.… Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” (Revelation 2:10)

We live as Jesus lived: anointed, not crowned. Our coronation is up to God, not us. He raised Jesus from the dead and crowned him with eternal life. As Jesus told John, “Do not be afraid…. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever.” (Revelation 1:17-18) When the Living One comes, bringing heaven to earth, then we will be crowned with life.

How Did We Get Here?

March 12, 2018

Michael Gerson, best known as George W. Bush’s speechwriter, has a terrific piece in the Atlantic trying to account for evangelical Christians’ embrace of Donald Trump. “It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment.” This is the best single account I have read.

Billy Graham

February 21, 2018

Some time back I wrote this piece on Billy Graham for Outreach Magazine. I never met the man. I heard him speak multiple times, beginning when I was seven years old. In this article I try to get at the question of his relevance, long after the vast crowds have vanished. And I re-tell his story, which I find truly fascinating.

Nuts and Pomegranates

February 14, 2018

This is a remarkable article about big ag in central California. I’ll warn you, it’s long. But you won’t soon forget it.

Family Devotion

February 6, 2018

I recently read Nicholas and Alexandra, a history of Russia’s last royal family by Robert Massie. It’s an old (1967) and wonderful account.

The basic story line is simple. Nicholas and Alexandra were kindly, devout and family-oriented people. Their only son Alexei was born with hemophilia, which he inherited from his great-grandmother Queen Victoria of England. This excruciating disease dominated the attention of his loving parents, particularly his mother. She would give anything to see him live. Through her son’s repeated near-death crises, only one person could help–Rasputin, a peasant who posed as a holy man. Rasputin had a mesmerizing personality, and more importantly, his presence or advice did, on several occasions, lead to a miraculous recovery for Alexei. Alexandra came to rely on him, almost desperately. He came to dominate Alexandra, making key government appointments through her, especially when Nicholas was on the field with the army. Due to numerous dreadful decisions, the royal government grew increasingly incompetent, unable to respond to the crises of the world war and the rapid changes in Russian society. The Revolution came. All the royal family were murdered and the tsar replaced by Vladimir Lenin, a man who was certainly not kindly, devout or family-oriented.

Massie suggests that a very different outcome was possible. Russia could have followed England’s lead, with a constitutionally limited monarch, beloved but constrained by Parliament. It did not happen because the Romanovs loved each other too deeply to see clearly. They dug their own grave—and Russia’s—with shovels made of family devotion.

I take it as a warning that it’s not good enough to be good. You have to think.

 

After the Wise Men Leave

January 22, 2018

On New Year’s Eve I preached on Matthew 2:13-23, which describes how Mary and Joseph took Jesus into Egypt, while Herod slaughtered the children left behind. I used the passage to probe the question of hope. What gives genuine hope in such dispiriting situations? I looked at the way Matthew cites prophecy to connect to the biblical story–a story that describes centuries of struggle and suffering, but that is powerfully hopeful. I talked about how story operates in our lives.

You can find the audio here.