II Samuel 1-3, Psalm 90, Acts 5
Letting cool heads prevail
II Samuel 1-3
David’s star is still on the rise. His ascension to power and greatness will continue until we reach 2 Samuel 11, when he commits adultery with Bathsheba. For now, David is a study in political greatness. His political instincts are excellent, and he wisely trusts them. He leads with moral authority, which engenders the trust of those around who live in a chaotic and unstable society.
Despite Saul’s constant attempt to destroy David, David never lessened his respect for Saul as God’s anointed. Scholars debate about whether various theologians have a high or low Christology, which means that they view Christ as fully divine and godlike or rather as a remarkable figure who embodied God’s spirit. The former would be a high Christology and the latter a low Christology. Biblical scholars access each author of the New Testament as well in terms of his Christology or concept of Christ.
In 1 and 2 Samuel it is clear that David had a very high, not low, concept of the Lord’s anointed. This appeared throughout his relationship with Saul and carried over into his self-concept once he was anointed as king of Judah. After a young Amalekite returned from battle and informed David that Saul and his sons had died in battle and that he himself had put Saul out of his misery, David ordered one of his soldiers to slay the messenger. David said, “Your blood be on your head; for your own mouth has testified against you, saying, ‘I have killed the Lord’s anointed.’” (2 Sam. 1:16)
David then composed an ode known as the “Song of the Bow” in honor of Saul and his son Jonathan. David and Jonathan’s friendship is matched only by Ruth and Naomi’s bond in the Bible. David wrote, “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the loved of women.” (2 Sam. 1:26) David was clearly bound to the house of Saul. He had married Saul’s daughter, Michal, and was the best friend of Saul’s son, Jonathan.
When David learned that the men of Jabesh-gilead had buried Saul, he reached out to them in gratitude. Clearly, these men were strong supporters of Saul and risked their lives to ensure that he was properly buried. Once again, David’s political instincts and sense of doing the right thing served him well. David said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, because you showed this loyalty to Saul your lord, and buried him!” (2 Sam. 2:5) David did not carry grudges – a trait worth imitating. David then added, “Therefore let your hands be strong, and be valiant; for Saul your lord is dead, and the house of Judah has anointed me king over them.” (2 Sam. 2:7) The men of Jabesh-gilead trusted David’s words.
Abner, commander of Saul’s army whose name meant “My father is the light bearer,” then anointed Ishbaal, Saul’s 40-year-old surviving son, to be king of Israel, the northern portion of the kingdom. Ishbaal served as king for two years, while David, ruled over Judah, the southern portion of the kingdom, for seven and a half years. During these years, the kingdom of Israel withered while Judah prospered. David gave birth to sons while serving as king in his capital of Hebron, which is where the Patriarchs of Israel, Abraham, Jacob and Joseph are said to be buried. We are introduced briefly to these sons, including, Amnon, David’s firstborn, who would later disgrace David’s house by raping his half-sister, and Absalom, who avenged his sister and later violated David’s concubines, attempted to destroy his father and take over the kingdom.
As the house of Saul waned, Abner, Israel’s commander, became strong and became a threat to King Ishbaal, who accused him of violating one of Saul’s concubines. Violating court protocol at this level was a deadly matter. Even the whiff of such behavior could cost someone his or her life.
Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, was dispatched for something similar. On Passion Sunday, April 2, 1536, Anne’s chaplain John Skip preached a long sermon in the Chapel Royal, which caused all hell to break loose in Henry’s court. Skip took as his text, “Which of you convicts me of sin?” which suggests that he was aware of the rumors that were flying around Henry’s court that the Queen had had sexual relations outside of her marriage and betrayed her majesty. This was never proved.
On May 16, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer heard her confession in the Tower of London. The next day Cranmer pronounced Anne’s marriage null and void, and Elizabeth, her child, was deemed a bastard. We do not know what Anne confessed to Cranmer, who had held the queen in the highest regard. She died with dignity two days later and without any submission of guilt.
Hence, courtly costumes were sacrosanct and any violation could cost one dearly. Abner, however, was in a strong position and not one to be easily threatened even by a king. “Today I keep showing loyalty to the house of your father Saul, to his brothers, and to his friends, and have not given you into the hand of David; and yet you charge me now with a crime concerning this woman,” retorted Abner to his king. (2 Sam. 3:8b) “So may God do to Abner and so may he add to it! For just what the Lord has sworn to David, that will I accomplish for him, to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul, and set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah from Dan to Beer-sheba.” (2 Sam. 3:9-10) This was treason, but Ishbaal was too weak to counter his commander.
Abner was good to his word. He quickly reached out to the northern tribes, who sought a stronger king in David to protect them from the Philistines and who worried that Ishbaal was could not protect them. Abner was the perfect go-between to establish David’s credibility and win over the northern tribes to David, leader of the southern kingdom. Intrigue, however, continued.
Abner sent messengers to David seeking to cut a covenant with him. David responded that Abner must ensure that Michal, his wife, whom Saul had taken back from him, would be given back to him before any covenant was cut. This was probably not for love, but rather to underpin David’s ties to the house of Saul. Abner took care of this matter, and soon Abner and 20 of his men ventured to Hebron to propose uniting the kingdoms. David listened carefully and sent Abner away in peace. (2 Sam. 3:21)
Joab, whose brother, Asahel, was slain by Abner, however, sought revenge. Upon learning of Abner’s visit to David, Joab secretly sent messengers after Abner, who captured Abner. Joab took Abner aside privately in a doorway and stabbed him. When David learned of the deed, he rent his clothes, put sack clothes on and mourned for Abner, just as he had mourned for Saul. Abner was buried at Hebron, where the Patriarchs were entombed and David wept at his grave. (2 Sam. 3:32) David refused to be consoled and eat on the David that Abner was laid to rest. “So all the people understood that day that the king had no part in the killing of Abner son of Ner.” (2 Sam. 37) David had more than great political instincts. He was truly a faithful man with great integrity. His honesty and actions spoke volumes.
Scholars note that the Deuteronomic history was written several centuries after the events that have been portrayed. David lived in the 10th century B.C. and these stories were not written until the 7th century and some speculate as late as the 3rd or 2nd century B.C. Hence, they are not accurate histories.
Archeological evidence had until recently never found an artifact bearing King David’s name. He is therefore a figure based upon biblical texts and not archeological evidence. What is vital to readers today is not to read this as an accurate history of Israel, but rather to see this as the work of a brilliant theologian, whose has much to teach us about living faithfully with God. Throughout the Davidic saga, God becomes is a passive character and David is an autonomous actor, whose faithful actions bring blessings and whose faithless blunders draw curses.
This psalm is an unusually rich psalm, full of wisdom for daily living. Its opening verse is a great for lectio divina or sacred reading. Pray it softly under your breath, repeating over and over again, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” (Ps. 90:1) Such words are full of comfort and truth.
The Psalmist understands the eternal nature of God, which surpasses all human understanding. He notes, “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” (Ps. 90:4) While God’s sense of time and our sense of time are vastly different, God knows the smallest details of our lives. No sin escapes God’s watchful eyes. “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.” (Ps. 90:8) We can deceive others, and we can deceive ourselves, but we cannot deceive God. Sin means separation, and God is always concerned when there is separation from what God has intended for us.
God’s horizon is infinite, while we often function on a finite horizon. Advertisers tell us that we only go around once, so we should go for all the gusto that we can. Such a secular viewpoint is short-sighted. Christianity rises or falls on the resurrection. If there is no resurrection and no eternal life, then Jesus was just a great teacher and Christianity is just another philosophy offering human wisdom.
The Psalmist notes, “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Ps. 90:10) It’s 2150. All of us are now dead. What are we going to do? What will all our efforts be worth then, if we are not focused on serving God now and preparing for eternal life? Our unending future with God must be in the forefront of our minds each day and guide all of our choices and decisions.
“So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (Ps. 90:12) Martin Heidegger, the great German philosopher, wrote that “being-unto-death” is the most authentic way to lead one’s life. We must live each day with the knowledge that we shall die, if we are to lead authentic, faithful lives. To live as though we will live forever on earth is wrong. Heidegger said that it is only when things break down, our body gives out, a loved one dies or a dream is dashed that we realize that we are mortal. That moment is our invitation to live a more authentic life.
The Psalmist encourages us to fortify ourselves spiritually each morning. This is the best time to read the Bible and pray. Morning devotions empower us for a day of godly living, listening, speaking, teaching and acting. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,” writes the Psalmist. (Ps. 90:14) The secret of abundant life is to refuel spiritually each morning. “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!” (Ps. 90:17)
The story of Ananias and Sapphira sounds like a last ditch attempt to strengthen church giving by instilling the fear of God into parishioners, who are reminded that if they hold back on giving to God what the church expects, they will die. It’s an almost comical story that reads like a tall-tale, but it strikes a strong chord that God is aware of the wealth that we have at our disposal and expects us to be honest and generous stewards. Too often Episcopalians dismiss Bible verses and stories that speak about what we should do with our money and our possessions. We need to paid close heed to them.
Well-educated and savvy Episcopalians like to read the Bible for wisdom, strength and comfort, but prefer to let their stock broker, lawyer or financial adviser inform them about how to handle their money and possessions. I have heard church members say, “My financial adviser and my lawyer have told me I must reduce the amount of money that I give away.” On many occasion, I have suspected that this was the voice of capitalism prevailing over the voice of the Gospel.
Virtually all of those who have said this to me were living rich lives and were hardly putting themselves at risk with their giving. Readers should read the story of Ananias and Sapphira cautiously, but take very seriously God’s expectations that we share generously of all that God has bestowed upon us.
The disciples preached fearlessly and cured the sick. Their message threatened the Jewish leaders who had collaborated with the Romans to kill Jesus. Despite being warned to keep silent, Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin or ruling court, which was composed mostly of Sadducees or members of the priestly party.
“We gave you strict orders not to teach in his name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us,” said the high priest. Peter retorted, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29) Who among us is willing to accept this charge today? The world needs more Christians with steel in their veins who will stand up to authority, come what may and cost what it will.
The council was enraged at their response. But amid the Sadducees stood a cool-headed Pharisee named Gamaliel, whose name means “God is my recompense.” He was the leading Jewish thinker of his day and the teacher of a bright young Pharisee from Tarsus named Saul, who would become Christianity’s first theologian, prevailed. Gamaliel’s legal opinions form part of the Jewish Talmud studied by rabbis and Jews today. He was a leader of the liberal wing of the Pharisees, rabbis who distanced themselves from the strictest interpretation of the Law.
Several of Gamaliel’s legal decisions were designed to better the situation of women. One permitted a widow to remarry, even if only one witnessed appeared to testify that her husband was deceased. Another ruling prohibited husbands from annulling divorce proceedings without their wives’ knowledge. Gamaliel was revered for his wisdom and prudence. We will later read in Acts 22:3 how Paul was “educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers” and was a student of Gamaliel. Unlike Gamaliel, however, Paul did not begin his ministry with toleration for Christians.
So, Gamaliel stood and addressed his peers, saying, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men,” he said. (Acts 5:35) He then uttered lines that each Christian should remember, especially in situations of church conflict. He said, “So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:38-39)
In the last 200 years, Christians have addressed slavery, the ordination or women and gays and lesbians and same-sex blessings. Time will tell whether or not these moments are of God. Gamaliel was right. If they are of God, we cannot prevent them, and we may well find ourselves fighting against God himself. Take heed Christian soul where you draw your battle line as you are drawn into the culture wars.
Despite Gamaliel’s fine words, the council still saw it fit to have the disciples flogged. (Acts 5:40) This was probably far less serious than the scourging applied to Jesus. Still, the disciples rejoiced in being considered worthy to suffer for Jesus’ name. How many Christians would feel the same today?
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. (Ps. 90:4)
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. (Ps. 90:12)
…if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God! (Acts 5:38-39)
Can you trust your instincts like David trusted his own? Do others see and respond to your honesty and integrity? Do you view yourself as living for 70 or 80 years or preparing yourself for eternity with God? In what ways are you allowing for God’s grace and time to tell whether important matters are of God or are doomed to fail?
Holy God, you created the sun and the moon and each minute of the day. Help us to look forward to an eternal horizon and a timeline that has no end as we prepare for a lifetime spent with you. Help us to make the most of each hour and day, knowing full well that our days and hours are limited and that our deepest joy comes from being in communion with you and with others. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania