II Samuel 4-6, Psalm 91, Acts 6
The Church divides labor in order to grow and flourish
II Samuel 4-6
In 2 Samuel 4:4 we are introduced to Saul’s son Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth, whose name was originally Meribaal, meaning “from the mouth of the lord” and referred to the Canaanite god Baal. We are told that when Saul and his son Jonathan died in battle with the Philistines on Mount Gilboa, Mephibosheth’s nurse grabbed hold of the little boy, who was then five years old, and hastily departed.
The boy, however, must have fallen and broke both of his legs or feet. Broken bones were normally set with splints in the ancient Near East, but compound fractures were deemed hopeless. Whatever occurred, Mephibosheth was apparently not properly cared for, and the breaks never mended. He was lame, and his name was changed to Mephibosheth, which means “from the mouth of shame.”
Mephibosheth will reappear later in the story, where David, unlike most rulers who immediately killed the previous king’s surviving family in order to prevent a palace coup, honored his dear friend Jonathan by sparing the life of his son and allowing Mephibosheth to eat regularly at the king’s table. This may also have been a means to keep one’s potential enemies close to oneself.
In chapter five we learn that the leaders of the various tribes of Israel came to David and anointed him to serve as their king. David had already served as king of Judah, the southern kingdom, for six and a half years. He ruled from Hebron, the capital of the southern kingdom. Now, David was to rule for 33 more years over the combined kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
In his first act as king of the combined kingdoms, David attacked Jerusalem. Archeologists and scholars have speculated that David entered the walled city through a tunnel called “Warren’s Shaft” that provided a water source to the city and ensured that the inhabitants had a source of fresh water from the Gihon Spring should the city ever be under siege. David and his soldiers reportedly climbed through the Millo and took the city from within without ever having to piece its defensive walls and wage battle from without. He conquered the Jebusites who occupied Jerusalem.
More recent archeological work has determined that Warren’s Shaft was never used as a water tunnel and was not connected to the underground water system during David’s time. Hence, scholars are not certain how Joab, David’s commander, and David made their way into the fortified city of Jerusalem.
Once David had settled as king in Jerusalem, King Hiram of Tyre, who ruled over a Gentile region, where Jesus would later visit and no self-respecting Jew would normally wander, set gifts of cedar trees, carpenters and masons to help his neighbor David build a palace fit for a king in his new capital. Perhaps it was a pre-emptive move to ensure that David and his forces did not wage war on Tyre.
David’s first act of genius was to make Jerusalem, which lay on the border between the northern and southern kingdom as his capital and residence. His second act of genius was to bring the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. This housed the Ten Commandments and was Israel’s most revered treasure. David danced naked before the Ark in a sort of prophetic trance girded only with a linen ephod, as crowds gathered and shouted and trumpets sounded. Clearly, he understood the power of pageantry.
Saul’s daughter and David’s wife, Michal, however, was far from pleased to see her husband dancing half naked before the crowds and serving in a role that her father once held, but doing so in a style completely different from the introverted Saul, who never longed for power. As she looked out of her window and saw David “leaping and dancing before the Lord” she “despised him in her heart.” This may also have something to do with 2 Samuel 5:13, where we read that David “took more concubines and wives; and more sons and daughters were born to David.”
Michal was now the expendable wife, one wife among many wives and concubines, wed to a man who differed greatly from her father. She dressed down David, saying, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” This marriage was on the rocks, and we are told that Michal never bore David a child until she died.
Meanwhile, the Ark of the Covenant was “set in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord.” (2 Sam. 6:17) The Lord did not permit David to build a Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, despite David’s desire to do so. This task would be left to Solomon, David’s son, but as David neared death he arranged the provisions needed to build the Temple. Like a controlling leader, David ensured that even if he was not allowed to build the Temple that his son had all the means at his disposal to carry out his father’s dream.
Some of the psalms leave people cold and unaffected, but not so with Psalm 91. This psalm has inspired one of the most beloved contemporary Christian hymns “On Eagles Wings.” The psalms were originally set to music. They were poems which were meant to be sung, not merely read aloud.
We read these touching and inspiring words that have been set to music once again by the St. Louis Jesuits in a hymn that is often requested at funerals,
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions;
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday. (Ps. 91:1-6)
I sang these words often while attending a Roman Catholic chapel service each Sunday during the last two years of college at Emory University. The lyrics were inspiring and accompanied by guitars. The sermon was a simple one-point message. The Eucharist was uplifting, and afterwards they served donuts to the hungry college students who arose early to worship. The donuts were the clincher, and I was hooked, but in truth the music, the liturgy and the message were what fed my soul.
The psalms offer some of the richest imagery and lyrics for hymnody across the centuries. This psalm in particular is rich with powerful and comforting imagery. “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” (Ps. 91:9-10) As we shall see later, this did not hold true for Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, but we find deep comfort as we trust that God is watching over us and will protect us, if we make the Lord our refuge.
In verses 11-12, we read lines which will later be used by the devil to tempt Jesus. The devil leads Jesus to Jerusalem and placed him on the pinnacle of the Temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” (Matt. 4:6) This is a direct quote from Psalm 91. Jesus counters by quoting Scripture and saying, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matt. 4:7) Throughout the centuries, Scripture has been used by opponents of the Church. It is important to know our Scriptures well. The Psalmist concludes by noting,
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation. (Ps. 91:14-16)
This chapter is short. It offers only 15 verses, but it marks a turning point in the development of the Church. The Church was early on committed to caring for those in need. It also grew rapidly. This taxed the resources of its leadership. In Acts 6:1 we read that the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
This was a pivotal moment. What were the leaders of the early Church to focus first and foremost upon – the distribution of food and caring for the poor and needy or spreading the Word of God? Clearly, Jesus multiplied the fish and loaves to assuage his listeners hunger and clearly he proclaimed the Gospel or the Good News of God wherever he went.
The twelve disciples summoned the burgeoning Christian community together and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the Word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the Word.” (Acts 6:2-4)
This act marked the first division of holy orders within the evolving Church. The Greek word diakonia from which we derive “deacon” in English, means “table waiter.” This was the first level of ordained leadership, which has come to signify an ordained order of leaders in the Church who read the Gospel aloud during worship, prepare the altar for worship and ensure that the Church carries out its ministry to serve the poor and needy.
Traditionally, the Church has three orders of ordained leadership – bishops, priests and deacons. Deacons are divided into two groups – transitional deacons and vocational deacons. Transitional deacons are ordained to this role like apprentices who spend six to 12 months serving as deacons and are then ordained as priests. Vocational deacons are ordained as deacons with an understanding that this is their vocational call. They will remain deacons and will not be later ordained as priests.
The community chose seven men, the first of whom was Stephen, who would soon become the first Christian martyr and the inspiration for countless artists across the centuries. Both Stephen and the other six men were deemed “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” The Church continues to need men and women full of Spirit and wisdom to lead it. Then the seven men who were to become deacons stood before the twelve apostles, who laid holy hands upon their heads and ordained them. This is how the Apostolic Church has ordained people ever since.
In the Methodist Church, a person is consecrated as a bishop for a term. When he or she no longer serves as a bishop, he or she no longer carries the title of “bishop.” In churches of Apostolic succession, such as the Episcopal Church, once one is ordained as a bishop, priest or deacon, one always remains a bishop, priest or deacon, unless he or she is defrocked for conduct unbecoming of a clergy person.
Apostolic churches include the Episcopal Church, the Swedish Lutheran Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Due to the Concordat between Episcopalians and Lutherans, an Episcopal bishop is supposed to be present at the ordination of every Lutheran pastor to ensure Apostolic succession. This literally means that one can trace the hands that were laid upon a deacon, priest or bishop’s head all the way back to the apostles of Jesus. This is the line of unbroken succession through which the Church believes that the Holy Spirit has been transmitted to leaders since the time when Stephen and six others were ordained as deacons or “table waiters” to serve those in need.
The Word of God continued to spread as a result of the apostles being freed to focus their energies on prayer and proclaiming God’s Word. Church leaders today must devote significant amounts of time to prayer and Scripture study. We must marinate ourselves in the Word of God. Unless we do so, our faith will wane. We will give off little light. We will become light a dim light in a dark room.
Some of the greatest preachers in our tradition – men like Lancelot Andrewes and Charles Simeon – devoted four hours each morning to prayer and Bible reading. The great impact of their ministry was grounded in this holy activity. Their great preaching came not from devouring Bible commentaries and studying in preparation to preach, but from allowing the Word of God to speak to them and touch their heart so that they might convey the Gospel to others. Clergy would be wise to return to devote at least an hour each morning to reading God’s Word and communing prayerfully with God.
We are told that Stephen was “full of grace and power” and “did wonders and signs among the people.” The Spirit flowed through him. Following God, however, does not guarantee that we will be blessed and prosperous. Often, it means that we shall face hardship, opposition and adversity. Men of the synagogue of the Freedmen opposed Stephen. They were truly not “freedmen,” but captives to the Jewish Law and a constrained way of viewing religion. They were not open to change. How often Christians in later centuries would act like members of this synagogue and resist any change in the Church or the culture around them.
Members of the synagogue of the Freedmen instigated against Stephen and manufactured lies. Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin and accused of violating the Law of Moses and making dangerous accusations. The council members could see that Stephen had an angelic face, but hearts were quickly being turned against him. His days and hours were now numbered.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. (Ps. 91:9-10)
You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. (Ps. 91:1-6)
Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the Word. (Acts 6:3-4)
Who have you cared for who is lame and whom you might have neglected or treated far differently? What steps have you taken to reconcile divided parties into a unified and harmonious group? How has God delivered you? How has God been your refuge in whom you can trust and seek shelter? What should the leaders of the Church focus upon first and foremost – proclaiming the Word of God or ensuring that the needs of the poor be met? Should the Church encourage a division of labor and responsibilities or should all of us be encouraged to do all things that Christ did and modeled?
Holy God, you indeed are our refuge in the midst of storm and tribulation. Allow us to nestle under your wings and seek shelter at all times. May we trust each day in your protection and care for us and for those whom we love. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania