Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 8, 2018
2 Samuel 5:1-10 Commentary
When North Americans think of politics, even some Christians sometimes think only of endless campaigns and slick advertising. We sometimes relegate talk about God’s involvement in politics to the conversations of people we think of as religious zealots. At least some Christians are especially reluctant to talk about God’s role in putting people into political office.
The Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday describes the zenith of David’s rise to political office. By its end, he has fully morphed from a largely irrelevant youngest son into Israel’s king. It’s the kind of political “underdog” story to which North Americans sometimes seem drawn like bugs to a light.
David’s meteoric rise is improbable. When, after all, God used Samuel to launch it by anointing him to be Israel’s king, Saul was still sitting on Israel’s throne. He also had a number of sons who were his potential successors. So if David was to actually become Israel’s king, he would need a lot of help.
That assistance comes from unlikely sources. First, Israel’s mortal enemies, the Philistines, kill both Saul and all but one of his potential successors. That prompts the people of Judah to anoint David to be their next king. However, Abner, Saul’s former commander, anoints Saul’s sole surviving son Ish-Bosheth king over all but Judah.
Yet at that point still another unlikely ally came to David’s aid. Abner, after all, does a 180 by defecting to David’s side. This leaves Saul’s son Ish-Bosheth unprotected from David’s soldiers who promptly eliminate him by murdering him.
So at first sniff, David’s rise to power smells a bit like the political shenanigans that have so often plagued so much of the world’s politics. After all, David’s rivals dead bodies seem like the steps he ascends to Israel’s throne.
Of course, others have “built” those “steps.” David has not ordered henchmen to carry out his work for him. He hasn’t even dirtied his hands or sullied his reputation by calling for his rivals’ deaths. David, in fact, has both publicly grieved their deaths and severely punished those responsible for them. Yet he doesn’t take over after his predecessor dies of natural causes. David seems to have become Israel’s king simply because people have eliminated all of his potential rivals.
The books of Samuel, however, tell us who really makes David king. It reports, after all, that it’s God who directs a reluctant Samuel to anoint him Israel’s new king, even while the old one is still “in office.” Only God, in fact, can even imagine that David, the runt of his family, will be Israel’s king.
So even as tensions escalate between David and Saul, God persistently protects David. In fact, only that sometimes-implicit protection of him spares him. David could well have and, in fact, perhaps “should have” died several times before he actually becomes king.
The bud that is David’s reign over Israel finally flowers as 2 Samuel 5 opens. After all, according to verse 2 the tribes of Israel try to convince him to become their next king. Yet they also make it clear that they’re not making their own appeal to David to become king. They claim to only be acting on God’s behalf. The Israelites basically beg the man who started out tending his dad’s sheep to say “yes” to God’s call to tend God’s Israelite “sheep.”
By referring to God’s call to David to “shepherd” (5) them, the Israelites set a high standard for his rule. God, after all, expected the “shepherds” who were Israel’s kings to rule in ways that both strengthened and protected God’s “flock” that was Israel.
God, in fact, clearly expects all people who have authority to use it wisely for God’s glory and people’s good. While David will generally meet that criterion, he will also sometimes act like the “bad shepherd” that texts like Ezekiel 34 so roundly condemn. He will periodically act as though Israel exists not for God’s sake, but for his own. Most notably, David will act like a predator when he takes the beautiful but married Bathsheba.
Such sin will eventually result in Israel’s loyalty drifting away from David and toward Absalom, who’s, ironically, a result of David’s predatory acts. However, 2 Samuel 5’s Israel’s tribes are so desperate to be David’s “sheep” that they set no preconditions for his leadership. They simply beg David to become their next king.
Yet while such desperation doesn’t always produce good leaders, David largely flourishes. After all, as Bruce Birch notes, he’s both a surprisingly young and durable leader, at least by ancient standards. David, however, isn’t just a durable king. He’s also a very successful one. David leads Israel to the high point of her nationhood, establishing remarkable stability and security.
Yet the threats to that security are both immediate and daunting. Israel’s ancient nemesis, the bloodthirsty Philistines, lurk just over the horizon. The first threat to David’s rule is, for some reason, the formidable obstacle that is Jerusalem. Yet our narrator takes only one short verse to eliminate it: “David captured the fortress of Zion, the City of David” (7).
Both 2 Samuel 5 and songs like Psalm 20 remind us that only God’s protection is completely reliable. So while David takes steps to secure Jerusalem, II Samuel insists that its security is not the secret to his success. Jerusalem’s first occupants mistakenly assumed that it would be strong enough to protect them. Our narrator won’t let Israel, you or me make the same mistake. He insists that David grows more and more powerful because “the Lord God Almighty is with him” (10).
We, however, know that God didn’t first come to be with David when he became king and conquered Jerusalem. After all, in II Samuel 7:8-9 God tells David, “I took you from the pasture and from following the flock to be ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone.”
In fact, God even goes on so far as to promise that long after David has died, God will stay with his often-faithless descendants. David’s house and kingdom, God insists, “will endure forever” before the Lord.
At least some North American Christians are understandably nervous about asserting that God made people like President Trump or Prime Minister Trudeau our leaders. Most Christians, after all, recognize the unique role that God played in elevating Israel’s kings to their thrones.
Yet the Apostle Paul seems to at least imply that God has some kind of role in raising up leaders. In Romans 13, after all, he writes, “The authorities that exist have been established by God.” So the Belgic Confession professes “our good God has ordained kings, princes and civil officers.”
That doesn’t mean that God pulled, for example, Justin Trudeau out of Parliament or Donald Trump out of the Trump Towers be a national leader in the exact same way God plucked David out of his dad’s fields to be Israel’s king. Israel was, after all, a theocracy that God directly ruled. No modern nation can legitimately make that claim.
Yet since they believed God has a role in putting leaders in place, biblical writers like Peter called his letter’s readers to respect them. “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every governing authority instituted among men,” the apostle writes. “Honor the king.”
In the Belgic Confess Reformed Christians profess that “Everyone, regardless of status, condition or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s word, praying for them, that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways.”
Yet even as we respect and pray for our leaders, we’re also realistic about their limitations. Some of them do some good things for their countries and world. So we continue to pray that God will use people like national leaders to honor God and bless God’s world.
David, after all, richly blessed Israel. Very quickly in II Samuel we read of how he defeats Israel’s mortal enemies, the Philistines. David is also godlier than most leaders. However, he will also morally stumble, sometimes very badly.
Yet God’s anointing of David as king links him to his descendant, Jesus Christ, who perfectly saves God’s people. Jesus is David’s “son” who brings the deliverance that is God’s salvation to the Lord’s people.
In fact, in the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed Christians profess that God the Father ordained him to be, among other things, our king. In that royal role, they profess, Christ “governs us by his Word and Spirit and … guards us and keeps us in the freedom he has won for us.”
Yet those who proclaim 2 Samuel 5 also note that God is not just “with” this Son of David like he was with David. God is, in fact, Jesus Christ, the Son of David. In this anointed descendant of David, God is “with” not only David, but also God’s adopted sons and daughters always.
On June 16, 2018 USA Today quoted United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions as using Romans 13 to defend President Trump’s administration’s immigration policies. “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later added: “It is very biblical to enforce the law.”
This use of Romans 13 enraged many Americans as well as people across the world. Yet while oceans of ink have been spilled debating Sessions and Sanders’ exegesis, I was struck by the response to it of a wise member of the church I pastor. He said, “I always get nervous when government officials quote Romans 13 to defend their own policies.”
In doing so my friend wasn’t just alluding to governments’ historic abuse of Romans 13 to defend things like slavery and racism. He was also noting that it wasn’t a government official who first penned its words. It wasn’t even just an outsider who wrote Romans 13.
Its author Paul was a member of a persecuted religious minority. The apostle wrote Romans 13, in other words, not from a position of power, but of vulnerability. Instead of trying to defend his own policy, he was urging respect and prayers for those who made and implemented policies that sometimes threatened Christians.
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