I Samuel 22-24, Psalm 87, Acts 1
Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken!
I Samuel 22 – 24
David is one of the most incredible figures in the Bible. He was a shepherd, soldier, musician, bandit, faithful friend, father, lover, king and empire builder. Like most of us, he was a complicated person and a mixed bag. He was a saint and a sinner, an ideal king and a failed father, a soldier of valor and an adulterer. His name occurs more than 1,000 times in the Bible. He played a significant role not only in military and political leadership, but also as a poet and theologian.
The Israelites having long lived under a tribal confederation without any centralized government, longed for a king. They were able to convince Samuel to anoint Saul to rule over them. Saul led tribal militias in the struggle against the Philistines, but forfeited Samuel’s support when he failed to lead an all-out holy war and the Spirit of the Lord departed from him. (1 Sam. 16:14)
David soon became the rising star of Israel. Saul used him for important missions, entrusting thousands of soldiers to David’s command. Saul’s son Jonathan found a kindred spirit in David and the two bonded as life-long friends. Both possessed the gift of friendship, something that not all men possess. They formed a covenant which they regularly renewed and which lasted until death. (1 Sam. 23:18)
Saul, however, was subject to bouts of depression and possibly madness. He raved, brooded, was jealous and became utterly suspicious of David’s motivations. When David realized that he had to flee for his life from his king, employer and father-in-law, he became a magnet for every discontented person living in Israel. David became an outlaw leader, who attracted political misfits. “Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him; and he became captain over them.” (1 Sam. 22:2) His band of warriors grew from 400 to 600 strong.
Saul pursued David with a vendetta and let no one stand in his way. When Ahimelech spoke out in his own defense and in David’s defense, Saul ordered his guards to slay the priests of the Lord. (1 Sam. 22:17) When they refused, Saul ordered his hatchet man Doeg the Edomite to fulfill the task. Doeg slew 85 priests that day. Only Abiathar, one of the sons of Ahimelech, escaped and made his way to David seeking sanctuary.
The people of southern Judah were now caught in a political struggle trying to decide whether to follow David, the local hero, who commanded a personal army, or Saul, the national leader, who commanded thousands of soldiers in a national militia. A turning point came when Saul entered a deep cave to relieve himself. David and his warriors were hiding in the cave. Several warriors urged David to kill the king. Regicide, however, was not on David’s mind.
Instead, he cut off a portion of Saul’s robe, and when Saul left the cave, David pursued him and shouted after him, showing the scrap of the king’s robe to prove that he could have killed him. Moved by David’s obvious integrity, Saul called off his vendetta, at least for a while, and allowed David to return to his desert stronghold. Saul told David, “You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.” (1 Sam. 24:17) This event speaks volumes about David’s character. He was willing to die, rather than harm his father-in-law, who was willing to put him to death.
Saul said to David, “So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. Now I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.” (1 Sam. 24:19b-20) Saul made David swear that he would not cut off his descendants after him, just as Jonathan had made David swear the same thing. Descendants, after all, carried on the family lineage and prayed for the well-being of their dead ancestors, thus insuring their well-being in the afterlife. “So David swore this to Saul.” (1 Sam. 24:22) David was clearly a mensch.
This is one of the most compact psalms in the Psalter, but there are three things worth noting about this powerful little psalm. First, verse 3 gave rise to one of Christianity’s best-loved hymns – “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” which is also called “Zion or the City of God.” This famous 18th-century hymn was composed by the master hymn writer and evangelist John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace” and was set to the music of Franz Josef Haydn’s “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser.”
Newton was inspired to write the hymn after he had asked for assistance from his friend and neighbor, William Cowper, another famous hymn-writer, while he was serving as the parish priest of Olney Church. With Cowper’s assistance, Newton was able to publish the Olney Hymns Hymnal, which included “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” in 1779. They hymn was based on Psalm 87:3 and Isaiah 33:20-21. The hymn was considered to be Newton’s best composition and was the only joyful hymn in the Olney Hymns Hymnal. The hymn has been widely used by many Christian denominations and was a favorite of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, who awakened his soldiers in 1862 in the Shenandoah Valley by singing “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” out of tune!
Verse 4 gives us the list of nations. “Rahab” is symbolically used to designate Egypt. It was also used to describe one of the sea monsters slain by God (see Job 26:12; Ps. 89:10; Is. 51:9) In both the Babylonian and Ugaritic creation myths, the champion deity – Marduk for the Babylonians and Baal for the Ugaritic tribesmen – fights and slays a sea monster similar to Yahweh slaying Rahab. The nations listed here include the great powers of Egypt (Rahab), Babylon and their near neighbors of Philistia and Tyre.
Verse 6 notes, “The Lord records, as he registers the peoples, This one was born there.” This is similar to Luke’s Gospel where we read, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” (Luke 2:1) In the ancient world, royal estate cities, which were heavily populated by relatives of the king, and their citizens enjoyed special privileges, including exemption from taxation, slave labor, military duty and imprisonment. They were also the beneficiaries of spending sprees by the king who created elaborate building projects. This is the privileged status to which the Psalmist alluded when he mentioned those born in Zion.
Acts of the Apostles is the second of two volumes written by the author of Luke’s Gospel. Acts is the sequel of Luke. Luke/Acts is united by a mountain theme, wherein the Gospel of Luke tells the story of ascending to Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified, resurrected and ascended to heaven. Acts tell the story of Pentecost, whereby the Holy Spirit was given to Jesus’ followers and they descended down the mountain to share their faith and witness to the works of Jesus to people far and wide.
Hence, the author begins by addressing the same person addressed in Luke 1:3. In Luke 1, the author notes that while many have attempted to set down an orderly account of the life and ministry of Jesus, he, too, “decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:3-4)
There has long been debate as to who Theophilus was. His name literally means “lover of God.” Some scholars believe that he symbolizes everyone who seeks to know God better. Others believe that Theophilus was Luke’s patron, who perhaps paid him to investigate and write this account. Whether he paid Luke or not, we are unsure, but Theophilus may have merely been a Gentile of standing for whom Luke offered to write a clear account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and then the story of how the Church began as told in Acts.
In Acts we read, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy to the apostles whom he had chosen.” (Acts 1:1) It is clear that these books belong together. Those who read them in koine or ancient Greek can see similar phrasing and uses of key Greek words in each volume, which further identify the hand of a single author.
In addition, there are themes that bridge both volumes. The Holy Spirit, for example, is the chief protagonist in Luke/Acts. Over and over again, the actions of individuals are attributed to the Holy Spirit. No author in the Bible has a keener sense of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity, than Luke. If you want to understand the Holy Spirit better, read both the Gospel of Luke and Acts.
There are three other things to note quickly in chapter 1. First, the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) They are still seeking a Messianic warrior to overthrow the Roman occupiers. Jesus responds saying, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7) These are Jesus’ direct words to the disciples after he has risen from the dead. It is worth remembering them as many through the centuries have claimed to know when the end times will be and have falsely predicted the end of the world. Jesus is very clear that this kind of knowledge will not be given to any of us. Enough with hoaxes!
The most serious claims, which we should heed, are being made by climatologists, who note that we are irreparably damaging the world. Christians should heed these warnings and be at the forefront of caring for our endangered world. To dismiss these warnings as liberal scientific thinking, is literally to sin against God’s own creation. We are called to be stewards, not exploiters, of God’s creation.
Second, Jesus promises that the disciples will receive the Holy Spirit. He tells them, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Then Jesus ascends to heaven. We read, “When he had said this, as they were watching, [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9) This occurs in Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary live. It is a short walk from Jerusalem. The ascension is also told at the end of Luke’s Gospel, where we read, “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:50-51)
Third, Luke tells us in Acts that Matthias is chosen to replace Judas, who had betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide in the field known as Hakeldama or “the Field of Blood.” The disciples return to Jerusalem and meet again in the Upper Room. Peter already takes up a leadership role and preaches to a group of 120 followers of Jesus. He notes how Judas’ betrayal and his burial in the field were predicted in the Old Testament.
The disciples propose two men as candidates to fill Judas’ role among the twelve. The twelfth apostle must have been with Jesus from his baptism to the time of his resurrection and ascension. Two men who meet this qualification are put forward. They are Joseph called Barsabbas, who is also known as Justus, and Matthias. They cast lots probably by putting stones with two names on them in a vessel and shaking it until one fell out. By this means they selected Matthias, whom we never hear from again.
Matthias’ name means “gift of God.” Church tradition notes that he was one of the 70 whom Jesus sent out two by two to preach, baptize and heal “into every town and place where he himself was about to come.” (Luke 10:1) Matthias was said to have preached in Judea and to have died as a martyr. Over the centuries, the Church has developed a more careful process for selecting bishops, priests and deacons, which in most cases is better than selecting names from a jar to determine who it is that God is calling to serve, equip and lead God’s people.
It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. (Acts 1:7)
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
Do you see yourself as a complicated person, a mixed bag or a combination of saint and sinner? Do you accept God’s acceptance of you? What right do you have not to accept God’s acceptance of you, if Jesus was willing to die for you? Have you had a moment of defining integrity like David in the cave with Saul? What role does the Holy Spirit play in your life? Which of the three persons of the Holy Trinity do you relate to best – God the Father, God the Son or God the Holy Spirit? How do you serve as a leader in God’s Church?
Gracious and Holy God, you have given us this day, this hour, this space and place to be in. You have provided us with our health, our heartbeat, our mind, our soul, our family, our friends, our shelter, our food, our livelihood, our books, our music, our garden, our rest, our wealth. It is more than enough. Our cup runneth over. We give you enormous thanks. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania