Kings and Shepherds: Power Corrupts… (1 Samuel 9; 17:33-37)

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This post has spun out of material I heard in the Mars Hill Bible Church Sermon ‘How To Use The Bathroom in a Cave’ by Kent and Ed Dobson. I go to a different place with it, so it’s worth checking out the original sermon here.

Kings are shepherds.

That’s the metaphor the Bible uses, for kings and priests and people in authority. The flock needs someone to lead, someone to defend, someone to care. The shepherd is in charge and the flock follows.

That’s why it’s important to note that, when David shows up, well before he takes the throne, he’s depicted as a literal shepherd, and a good one at that. When explaining why he thinks he can take on Goliath he describes how he got between his sheep and wolves, bears, lions, how he fought wild animals and won and protected his flock. Even if you don’t know how the story turns out, David’s obviously already a hero in waiting – he’s a good shepherd, surely that means he’ll make a good king?

But the Bible has a problem with kings. Sure they’re anointed by prophets and appointed by God, but the whole monarchy thing seems to be a Plan B at best. After all, look at how we’re introduced to Israel’s first king, Saul, long before the heroic David turns up. Saul’s looking after his father’s donkeys, but they go missing and the only reason he gets them back is that he encounters a seer during the search. The guy can’t even look after a bunch of donkeys, we should be asking questions about how well we should expect his reign to turn out.

And that’s how the story goes – the bad shepherd proves to be a bad king, and needs to be replaced by the good shepherd who goes on to become Israel’s greatest king. It just goes to show that you should always pay attention to the metaphors.

But power corrupts, so they say, and it’s true. David was a good shepherd, a man after God’s own heart, yes, but one day there came a point when he saw a beautiful but married woman bathing and decided that, as king, the rules didn’t apply to him; the shepherd who refused to kill an enemy in order to take his throne is now a king who plots to kill a friend in order to take his wife. As a young man he sought to end the oppression of the Philistines; as an old man he doesn’t even act to get justice for his own daughter.

If the man who wrote Psalm 23, who toppled giants, can fall so far, is it any wonder that the Bible has an ambiguous attitude towards kingship?

And so maybe the idea of power is one of our idolatries. Many Christians love the idea of getting together to vote for ‘their’ candidate, or ‘their’ party. We follow mega-pastors who can declare an internet war with a single tweet, we want to proclaim our countries as ‘Christian’, regardless of the atrocities in which they’ve been involved. We love our kings, so much so that we’re inclined to turn a blind eye to when they’re less than noble shepherds. Because, when it comes down to it, we want our leaders to kick ass.

And yet there’s the key to all this. After all, it’s not the idea of a king itself that the Bible has issues with, it’s that there’s already a King and we’re too quick to try to put someone else on his throne. God is King, and, through Jesus, his throne is a cross. When he’s tempted in the wilderness with the trappings of kingship (“Rule the nations! Never see you or your people go hungry! Never suffer for your rule!”) he rejects the short cuts of temporal and economic and political power. When he needs to demonstrate what a true king looks like, he wraps a towel around his waist, washes the feet of his friends, then heads out into the night to face the nails of Calvary.

That’s why such a big deal is made over Jesus being the Good Shepherd.

Because that’s what a real King looks like.

Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22)

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There are times, writing this blog, when I think I should leave a topic alone. After all, others have already said what I want to and said it better. Mandy Marshall’s post ‘The Silent Screaming of Tamar’ is one of those cases – it’s a powerful, important piece. You should read it.

All the same, I’m still writing this post, because Tamar requires those of us with a voice to use it. This is a story characterised by the silence of those with power; to participate in that silence isn’t an option. And I’m writing it because, only this morning, there are new reports of yet another sexual abuse cover-up by the church.

So, 2 Samuel 13: Tamar, daughter of King David, is raped by her brother and nothing is done about it.

Her father does nothing, beyond expressing an empty fury.

Her other brother does nothing, at least not for two years. When he does, it leads to civil war, although this seems driven more by his dynastic ambitions that an innate sense of justice.

Their servants do nothing, because it’s more than their jobs are worth.

And Tamar disappears from the narrative; her story becomes that of her brothers and we never learn of her ultimate fate. We never hear about her tears, her bruises, her sleepless nights and her nightmares. She survives, but we don’t hear anything about it; when the story switches to rebellion and war, “what happened to Tamar?” is a question conspicuous by its absence.

In recent months the UK has been rocked by a series of scandals and investigations involving sex crimes carried out by prominent members of society. The Catholic Church has been scarred by revelations of child abuse for decades. There have been scandalous, high profile stories of sexual assault in the US and India. And somewhere along the line power structures were prioritised over the innocent, failing countless Tamars. The organisation becomes more important than people.

The minute that happens, any pretence of supporting those who need it most has been sacrificed, pretty much deliberately. The survivors of abuse are written off as unreliable, untrustworthy, troublemakers. The Church ceases to be a safe place while justifying itself with theology. It seeks to save its own life, which is a sure fire way of losing; we sit around bemoaning our declining influence while moral crimes like this are revealed on a weekly basis. Go figure.

Meanwhile Tamar sits in a corner, ignored and inconveniently weeping.

The fact is, this post shouldn’t have to be written. There shouldn’t have to be debates over ‘legitimate rape’. There shouldn’t be a ‘rape culture‘. It’s wrong and disgusting and the involvement of some branches of the church in covering it up and brushing it under the carpet is obscene.

“Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me,” Jesus once said. He still weeps with Tamar, with all the Tamars. The tragedy is that he does this while his church is still too willing to draw the curtain, to look the other way.

David’s Census (2 Samuel 24)

But wait; if we’re criticising Solomon, we need to remember that his dad made his share of mistakes, two of which are highlighted as his major flaws. The first is straight-forward – David has an affair with a woman named Bathsheba, gets her pregnant and, when he can’t cover it up, has her husband killed. David pays the consequences of that, and rightly so – there’s no way a situation like that isn’t going to end badly.

His other big mistake is stranger – he takes a census. The man who took down Goliath is brought low by a census. To make matters more complicated, it’s a census that God orders him to take so that God can punish him for taking a census.

What?!

This is one of those stories I don’t quite know what to do with. But here’s an idea.

It’s obvious from the passage that everyone knows that taking a census of Israel’s military is a bad idea. I can see the logic in this – they’re not meant to trust in the strength of their army or their resources, they’re meant to trust in God. After all, the Bible is full of examples of God using a small force to defeat huge armies. Maybe counting the fighting men is the thin end of the wedge, an example of misplaced confidence that could end up with a king having lots of horses (and their associated chariots), thus trusting in their own strength and not God’s. I can understand that.

But then God manouveres them into a stuation where they’re going to get punished for something he told them to do. It seems a little unfair – if they need to be punished, then punish them for what they did in the first place.

(Interestingly, the 1 Chronicles 21 version of this story says that Satan instigated the census, not God… But as Satan’s role in the Old Testament is often to test people’s faith in God, the end result is the same. After all, David has a choice in all this. That said, this post would have been way easier had I just gone with Chronicles…)

So allow me to indulge in some random speculation again: What if God is expecting an argument?

Stick with me. It’s not like people haven’t argued with God before. Back in Genesis, God tells Abraham he’s going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Realising that his nephew is living in Sodom, Abraham starts bargaining with God – “Would you save the city if I could find 50 good people living there? What about 45? What about thirty? Twenty? Ten?”

And instead of getting angry, God goes along with it. It doesn’t pay off, as ten good men can’t be found, but still Abraham tried and got a positive response. God responds to an act of compassion, even if Abraham does have a vested interest.

And then there’s Moses’s disagreement with God. In Numbers 14, the Israelites are on the verge of rejecting God, deposing Moses and electing themselves a leader to take them back to Egypt. God is understandably furious at this lack of gratitude and decides to wipe them all out and start again with Moses.

Moses says no.

“Look, if you kill them all, everyone will say that you couldn’t carry out your promise to give these people a land of their own. Can you forgive them instead?”

And it works, to a degree. The instigators of the rebellion are killed by a plague, and entry into the land is delayed for a generation so that the people aren’t always so eager to go back into slavery in Egypt, but Israel survives. Again, God responds to an act of compassion.

Right, now look at the consequences of David’s census. He carries it out, a plague falls on the land and wipes out thousands of people. David realises what’s happening and sets up an altar to God at his own expense in order that he might intercede on behalf of his people. He does, the plague stops and God responds to an act of compassion.

Which raises the question, what would have happened if David had said no to the census? What if he’d argued with God? Eventually he gets involved on behalf of his people and God relents; would acting sooner have made a difference.

Well maybe, maybe not, but sometimes we need to take a risk on behalf of others. Abraham did, Moses did, David did eventually. And God responds to that, which is understandable, because that’s exactly what he does in the New Testament, with nail pierced hands on a Friday afternoon.

David’s Mighty Men (2 Samuel 23; 2 Samuel 11)

Now, I don’t know your taste in action heroes. You may like Bruce Willis’s everyman in Die Hard. You may be awed by the sheer physical presence of Schwartzenegger. You may like the kung fu comedy of Jackie Chan; you may appreciate the near cartoonish antics of Jason Statham. There are many styles of badassery, but few can be said to be biblical. This entry is about the most epic, the most heroic, the most testosterone-fuelled passge in the Bible. It’s a passage that doesn’t get preached on much, and I’m not sure I’m bringing any real insight to it, but it’s getting an entry anyway, because it’s awesome.

2 Samuel 23 is a list of King David’s biggest baddest warriors. Such as:

  • Josheb-Basshebeth, who killed 800 men in one battle. With a spear.
  • Eleazar, who taunted Philistines into battle, and even when the rest of his men had retreated, he kept on fighting until his hand froze to his sword. And he won.
  • Shammah, who fought off a Philistine invasion on his own. Bizarrely, this was in a field of lentils.
  • Abishai, who killed 300 bad guys. Again with a spear.
  • And finally my favourite, Benaiah. David’s bodyguard, he took out two of the best Moabite soldiers. He went up against a huge Egyptian (another giant?) armed only with a club, then wrestled the Egyptian’s spear from him and killed him with it. And he killed a lion. In a pit. In the snow. Benaiah is awesome.

These are epic tales, the sort of stories people tell around the campfire and sing songs about. There are 37 names listed in all (there’s a similar list in 1 Chronicles 11) and, from the way the passage is written, they’re all heroes.

But something jumped out at me.

This is a list of David’s fiercest and best warriors? Fine.

Look at the last name on the list – Uriah the Hittite, right?

Okay, now read 2 Samuel 11:1-27.

Being last on the list draws attention not just to Uriah, but also to David’s greatest sin. Long story short – David had an affair with Uriah’s wife, who became pregnant as a result. David hopes Uriah will sleep with her and think he’s the father, but no, Uriah is too loyal to leave his post during wartime. The only way to cover up the affair is for David to have Uriah deployed to the thickest fighting of the next battle, and inevitably he is killed. It’s a cynical, cowardly act of murder; needless to say, God isn’t happy and David pays for it.

And so maybe, at the end of this list of heroic badassery, this is something we need to remember – our heroes have feet of clay. David was both a man after God’s own heart and a murdering adulterer. The message? The real hero of the Bible isn’t David, isn’t Moses, isn’t Benaiah the lion-killer. It’s God, the only one who doesn’t fail, doesn’t fall, doesn’t have feet of clay.

Today is traditionally a day on which we remember Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness; the time when, tempted by infinite power, infinite resources and the insidious whispers of an easy life, he took the difficult, agonising path to the cross – a hero’s journey.

He’s the one who rides to our rescue.

He’s the one who sacrifices himself.

He’s the hero.