Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 25, 2018
2 Samuel 23:1-7 Commentary
Like other great leaders of Israel before him (Jacob in Genesis 49 and Moses in Deuteronomy 33), David concludes his life with famous last words. Though he undoubtedly spoke other words after this (cf. opening chapters of I Kings), “[t]hese are the last words of David” in an official way, his last pronouncement, his prophetic word to posterity. It is fitting that the last words of “Israel’s singer of songs” should be two songs (chapter 22 and these words). Chapter 22 summarizes David’s experience as Israel’s greatest King, while II Samuel 23:1-7 expresses his hope for Israel’s future kings. As a prophetic song, this reading is a fitting end to the church year, when we celebrate the reign of Christ the King and look forward to the Advent of the new born King, the greater Son of David.
It is no stretch to call this a prophetic song, because David explicitly uses the Hebrew word for prophecy as he opens his song. Twice he says that what follows is “an oracle.” Here is a king functioning as a prophet, an unusual thing in Israel. But this is an important moment, so God’s people need a word directly from God. That, says David, is exactly what he is about to speak. “The Spirit of Yahweh spoke through me, his word was on my tongue. The God of Israel spoke, the Rock of Israel said to me….”
That is not the proud boast of a powerful man. Indeed, David takes great pains at the very beginning of his prophecy to give God all the glory for his kingship. It was the Most High who had exalted David, the God of Jacob who had anointed the son of Jesse. This is no Nebuchadnezzar boasting about his accomplishments. This is no partisan modern day leader crowing about how much he has accomplished. This is a humble shepherd acknowledging that he was made the Shepherd of Israel by the Great Shepherd (Psalm 23).
He wants to remind his people and all future leaders (be they kings of Israel or Prime Ministers of Canada or Presidents of America) what great leaders look like and accomplish. Or, more accurately, God wants to remind the world about the requirements and possibilities for great leadership. These words come not from David’s experience and wisdom, but directly from the mouth of God (verses 2 and 3a).
The words of II Samuel 23:3b and 4 should be emblazoned over the desk of every leader in the world (with adjustments for gender, of course). “When one rules over men in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth.” The two qualities that make a leader truly great before both God and humanity are justice, a concern for personal and public righteousness, and piety, a humble reverence for God before all other powers.
Such a leader is like sunshine and rain for the people that leader governs. As the earth flourishes only when there is adequate sunshine and rain, so a people can flourish only when the leader is just in his dealing with the people and faithful to the God who made him or her leader. Take away either (sunshine or rain, justice or piety) and a nation, a people, a church cannot thrive. Thus saith the Lord.
That is an important word from God, but then in verse 5a David speaks his own word. “Is not my house right with God?” Is the implication there that David has always governed with righteousness and the fear of the Lord? Of course, that isn’t true. David had been guilty of terrible unrighteousness, when his own desires overcame his fear of the Lord. And his house had been terribly divided by his sin. While that history may illustrate negatively how true the words of God in verses 3b and 4 are, it is not true that David’s house was right with God because David had always been the ideal king.
So how can he claim that his house is right with God? The next words tell us; it’s because of God’s gracious covenant promises to David and his house. “Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part? Will he not bring to fruition my salvation?” David is referring here to God’s promise in II Samuel 7:14-16 that David’s line will never die out. His kingdom will never end. Even if his sons sin and are disciplined, God will remember his covenant and will supply a king who will reign in righteousness and the fear of the Lord.
That promise, of course, came true in Jesus Christ, as the angel said to Mary in Luke 1:32, 33. II Samuel 23 not only describes the ideal Jewish King, but also promises the very real King of the Jews and the Gentiles who will bring peace/Shalom to the earth. The coming of that perfect King was absolutely sure because it was rooted in the unbreakable promise of God, “arranged and secured in every part.” As the Old Testament predicts in so many places and the New Testament promises in its eschatological passages, that King will renew the whole earth like sunshine and rain. Under his leadership, the creation will flourish in the new heavens and the new earth where righteousness dwells.
The New Interpreter’s Bible points out that David’s last song is the counterpart to the Song of Hannah in I Samuel 2. She sang in anticipation of God’s anointed one and the power of God through this royal agent to reverse the injustices of the world. The song of David in II Samuel 23 “makes it clear that God has not abandoned his resolve to work through his anointed King. After David’s sin and the abuses of his children, these last words remind us that God will continue his covenant promise in spite of the imperfection of David.” But his line must rule righteously and in the fear of God. When they finally demonstrated that they couldn’t, God sent the last, best Son of David, the Son of God.
It feels anticlimactic that David’s last words don’t end on the high note of verse 5, but they don’t. They end with the low note of judgment, the basso profundo of God’s intention to get rid of the thorns who have ruined God’s good earth. Like so much of wisdom literature, David’s last words balance the good news of grace with the bad news of judgment. Maybe that’s because the bad news of the final burning isn’t really such bad news at all. Maybe it is part of the Good News. God assures David that the thorns that have hurt so many people, that have ruined God’s good earth will finally be burned up, so that the earth can flourish again. Yes, the forces of evil are so tough and tenacious that human hands cannot root them out. But the fire of God will burn them up “where they lie.” That’s the hard edge of the Good News, but it is good news. How can the new heavens and the new earth be paradise, if any unrighteousness remains?
The hard ending of David’s last words should be heard with gladness by all those who have ever suffered injustice at the hands of those who do not fear the Lord. Our world is filled with aggrieved parties right now, and justifiably so. But David’s song calls us higher than solving our immediate problems with injustice. I usually hesitate to use long quotes from commentaries, but The New Interpreter’s Bible says it profoundly. “Surrounded by a troubled and broken world and in the crises of our own lives, we lose sight of God’s power at work beyond and in spite of our own human limitations and sin. In the name of realism, we define ourselves, our goals, our communities by our failures and not by our visions. We settle for problems to solve rather than ideals to embody. If we are so busy in the church realistically analyzing our institutional and societal issues that we fail to dream dreams or see visions, then we will perish like the ‘worthless ones’ of II Samuel 23:1-7. If, however, we claim with David the everlasting covenant of God’s promise, then the hope of our future world will be based in a reality that transcends the powers of this world.”
Two old hymns capture the soul of David’s final words. The first is a Christmas carol known to everyone, “Joy to the World.” But do we realize what we are singing in stanzas 2 and 3?
Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns; let all their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy
No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found.
The second hymn is a perfect song for celebrating the reign of Christ the King. Stanzas 1 and 4 of Jesus Shall Reign shout the praises of the coming King.
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does its successive journeys run;
His kingdom spread from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
Let all the people rise and bring
Their special honors to our King;
Angels descend with songs again
And earth repeat the loud Amen.
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