It’s not often I get to do crafty stuff in the days before Christmas but today I have been making some life-size silhouettes for a special Advent service tomorrow, looking at how Jesus fulfilled the ancient leadership offices of prophet, priest and king. The royal one is particularly apposite, because it follows up a month-long series we did in November, about the king movement in Israel three thousand years ago. In that series I was slated to preach on David, and because chronologically he falls between Saul and Solomon, I learned heaps about all three of them. What I found particularly interesting in the run up to Advent was how Jesus, the true king, fulfilled the leadership God had in mind for his people, in ways far beyond what those Hebrew kings accomplished.
Remember that after the Exodus, the people finally had a land and were given judges as leaders, but Israel was little more than a league of tribes. They often deserted Yahweh favour of pagan idols, but he still had plans to use them to bless the nations. However they agitated to have a king like the nations round about. The Samuel stories tell us that the anointing of Saul as the first King was the culmination of vigorous debate. On the one hand a strong leader was needed to unite the tribes into an alliance to fight the Philistines, but on the other, the existence of such a leader would weaken the conviction that God was Israel’s only true king. This genuine tension is revealed in a warning:
"Let them have a king but tell them first what having a king entails. They will be his soldiers and servants and factory workers. Their best farms and cattle and possessions will be his by right. Anything he wants they will have to give him. He will have power over life and death. They will be hit hardest where it hurts most – the pocket. To have a king is very expensive. Tell them.” (paraphrase of 1 Sam 8: 10 - 18 from David Kossoff's Bible Stories p 35)
In the eleventh century BC, God seemed to go along with the people’s demands and Saul became the first king, a kind of perpetual judge. But despite God’s anointing, Saul was a headstrong, selfish man who put his own ambitions before God’s wisdom. He developed an irrational jealousy of the rising young general David, and by the end of his life he was clearly deranged. Samuel had already identified the young shepherd musician from Bethlehem as Saul’s successor. David was made of different stuff, as we know from the inspiring story of his defeat of the Philistine giant Goliath; he used his own native cunning and hunting skills to kill the man, but gave God all the credit. “Now the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel!” (1 Sam 17: 46)
Not many shepherds join the royal family, and this youngest son of Jesse of Bethlehem must have been extraordinarily talented in order to rise to prominence in Saul’s government and armed forces. He became so successful in battle that people were singing songs about him; "Everyone in Israel and Judah loved watching him in action.”( 1 Sam 18: 16) This enraged Saul, who became so insanely jealous that he hurled a spear at him several times. The nation was dividing into two factions – those for Saul and those for David. David became close friends with Saul’s son Jonathan and married Saul’s daughter Michal. They both knew their father was somewhat unhinged, and tried to protect David from Saul’s murderous frenzies. Eventually David accepted that Saul was intent on killing him, and fled south into the wilderness, hiding with his 400 followers in caves and wadis to escape Saul. David was able to forge alliances with the Philistines, and took control over a whole series of southern tribes. All this time we are told he found his strength in God (1 Sam 30: 6), and in 2 Samuel 2 he is crowned King of the southern kingdom, based in Hebron.
By this time Saul was washed-up. Along with three of his sons, Saul died in battle, and David wept for a king who had both loved and hated him. We still quote from his lament - "how are the mighty fallen" (2 Sam 1: 27). In practical terms, the northern kingdom was in pagan hands for several years, and then in 1000 BC, David and a peacebuilder called Abner worked out a plan for reunification. David became King over all of Israel, defeating the Philistines over and over again and becoming the dominant political force for another thirty years. His shrewd decision to then take Jerusalem as his capital was a masterly stroke, because this strategically-placed city was acceptable to both factions. The story of his capture of the city by sending men up the water shaft from the spring of Gihon is well-loved, and although subject to debate, is now gaining some scientific support; archaeologist Dr Eilat Mazar has found a possible site of a hilltop palace and waterworks in the most ancient area of Jerusalem. Although the Jebusites had lost, Scripture tells us David respected their property rights by legally purchasing the threshing floor which became the site of Solomon’s Temple, and of the Muslim Dome of the Rock today. The surviving Jebusites continued to live in the city, contributing to the civic administration. That point needs to be considered in the modern debate about who owns Jerusalem.
Archaeologists tell us the population of that area doubled in a very short time as David defeated Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites and Syrians, and whole tribes gave their allegiance to Israel which now stretched from Egypt to Mesopotamia. David built new fortifications and a royal palace, using Phoenician craftsmen whose skill would also be used in the Temple. David felt the Hebrews’ spiritual icon – the Ark of the Covenant - should have a great palace like his own, and started designing a house, a temple for it. This was a longterm project that would only come to fruition in Solomon’s reign.
David was a man of principle, a brave man, a man chosen by God, blessed by God. But he was a human man, a fallible man, subject as we all are to human weaknesses. The story of his biggest sin – adultery with Bathsheba, another man’s wife - is a sobering one, that also involves the murder of a general and the death of a newborn baby. The story of Nathan's confronting David with his sin is one of the most moving in the Bible – see 2 Samuel 12: 1 – 7. David was convicted of his failure in the sight of God, and prayed sincerely for forgiveness. Psalm 51, journalled during this time, portrays a stark contrast with the arrogance of Saul. Even the powerful leader is subject to another King. And although there are consequences - years of rivalry and civil war, famine and plague - the dynasty will continue; another baby is born to Bathsheba, now David's wife, a special baby called Solomon, meaning peaceful.
After forty years as king, David dies and passes the task of constructing the great temple of Jerusalem on to Solomon. It was a vast edifice, built of the finest timber, decorated with treasures, trimmed with solid gold. It became a true centre of Hebrew worship, remaining on its hilltop site for most of the next thousand years. Solomon’s reign was peaceful and prosperous, marked at times by the amazing wisdom we still have in the Proverbs. But things went wrong. In his relentless pursuit of money, sex and power Solomon set up a lavish hedonistic lifestyle that ignored the needs of his people, and under the influence of his 1000 wives and concubines, he allowed Israel to depart spiritually from the loyalty Yahweh required.
In the end, each one of them - Saul, David and Solomon left a legacy of sin and pain. All the kings of David’s dynasty became like the kings of other nations, more concerned for themselves than for the purposes of God. And that is why a fallible human King was never going to cut it long term. A different kind of rule was needed, and the New Testament reveals what and who that would be. In my sermon on David – which was providentially on 27 November, the Feast of Christ the King - I noted four qualities that connect with our own challenges but also with the One who was to come:
- David was faith-filled, he loved the law and listened to godly advisors; he strengthened himself with trust in his God. May we too honour God and seek his wisdom and will.
- David was fallible, he succumbed to temptation and used his power to take what was not his. We too make bad judgments and wrong choices, and suffer consequences. Like Jimmy Bakker, we need to be able to say I Was Wrong.
- David was forgiven, as he confessed his sin and changed his ways. We too can have a fresh start in the grace of God. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. (Ps 139: 23, 24)
- David was fruitful. Despite his peccadilloes, God was able to use him. That is true of many heroes of the Bible but also of high-profile leadership failures today, like Geoff Bullock, whose songs we still sing gladly, despite his being caught up in an affair.
As this week we celebrate the birth of Christ, let’s remember what the Bible makes abundantly clear: this King born in a stable is no power-monger, no tyrant, no self-aggrandising leader. Rather, he is the Good Shepherd to God’s people, the servant leader, the self-giving Messiah. Let’s look at those four headings with Jesus in mind:
- Jesus – not just faith-filled but inspiring faith and worship and hope for 2000 years
- Human but not fallible, in fact a perfect role model of the character and purposes of God
- Not at all needing to be forgiven but the forgiver, offering redemption for sin and a new way of living.
- Not only fruitful but inspiring and enabling fruitfulness in millions of believers through his risen presence.
He’s the king. He’s my king. He’s Christ the King.
May God bless you richly this Christmas season.