By The Rev. Sam Portaro
Nahash, king of the Ammonites with whom David has maintained a respectful relationship, has died. David’s condolences to Hamun, are met with suspicion by the successor’s advisors, who foment a humiliation of David’s emissaries [Ch 19]. War ensues, escalates and expands [Ch 20], as does Israel’s conquests and riches [Ch 21]. As his realm grows, so does David’s daring; emboldened by victory, he orders a census—an accounting of his earthly, human capital. His rationale may have been purely practical—to establish a tax system to sustain a growing empire and/or to assess his military capabilities by counting his potential army. This act is nonetheless an expression of faithlessness, an insult to the God who has promised to provide.
The portion of Psalm 119 (73-112) appropriately expresses the somewhat ambivalent stress played out in the narrative of I Chronicles 19-21, wherein David and his nation are by turns gracious, humiliated, set upon, and challenged not only by war, but as well by victory. Alternating between expressions of lament and praise, this portion reflects the inner dialogue of any faithful person struggling to balance personal setbacks in the context of God’s assurances.
The eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to Rome continues his struggle to unravel the perplexities of human will and activity, but commences with a reassuring assertion that no matter the confusion, God does not condemn humanity for this failing. If it be a shortcoming, it is part and parcel of what it means to be human, to be made distinctly other than God. As poet Alexander Pope succinctly put it, “to err is human.” In that confidence, we are encouraged to persevere, as did David, whose own fidelity to God embroiled him in deadly warfare.
The central summation of Christ’s gospel for Paul is the concluding paragraph of Chapter 8. No matter the path our lives take, regardless the missteps and mistakes experienced in the way, we are not condemned. In the ambiguity of David’s experience, in the ambivalence of the Psalmist’s prayer, in the confusion of Paul’s perplexities, there remains the clarity of God’s unequivocal promise: God never forsakes us.
David’s well-intentioned expression of condolence to Hamun was twisted into a provocation to war. Have you ever experienced a similar reaction to some action you intended otherwise? Have you ever been party to such confusion? Do you see any similar examples in current events?
Have you ever felt caught in a web of complications resulting from your own good intention? Can you empathize with Paul’s torturous struggle to articulate the frustration of such entanglement?
God of truth, help me to unravel the fabric of my own desires that I may see each thread for what it truly is. Then weave my threads into a design of your own delight. Amen.
The Rev. Sam Portaro is former Episcopal Chaplain at the University of Chicago and a noted author and retreat leader.