Readings: 2 Samuel 23:1-7, True Christianity #490 and #440 (see below)
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So today we hear a text centered in the final period of King David’s life. We spent the last few weeks in the book of Ruth, the story of a loyal Moabite woman who followed her mother-in-law to Israel, and became David’s great-grandmother, establishing kindness as central to the linage of a great king, rather than purity.
Now we fast forward past a couple of generations, past the great prophet Samuel and the tragic King Saul, to the end of King David’s reign. And we hear in our text what are called his “Last Words.” Now, if you keep reading in 2 Samuel, and I Kings, you’ll see that David doesn’t actually die quite yet. He continues long enough to establish his son, Solomon on the throne, and in truth, his actual final words are to Solomon, giving him advice for his future reign.
The text in 2 Samuel is David’s final public words, his final prophetic utterance as God’s anointed, and as author of many psalms, his final work of art and praise. For we remember, David was once a young boy who played the harp so beautifully that it calmed the troubled King Saul.
However, as we read the text, we certainly might pause in puzzlement. We might wonder, how can David say that the spirit of Lord spoke through him, how can David speak of ruling over people in righteousness and in the fear of God, and having a house right with God, when David himself undertook gross abuses of his power, the consequences of which played out in the bloody disarray of his family in the final years of his reign? There is a real tension that exists in the Hebrew scriptures around the exultation of King David, who was a terribly imperfect person and ruler. In fact, throughout the bible as a whole, there are many more imperfect characters than there are model ones, and as we learned through our study of the book of Ruth, even the stories of the model characters are more complicated than they might first seem.
David said: “If my house were not right with God, surely he would not have with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part; surely he would not bring to fruition my salvation…” It might chafe to hear David speak so, the first part being such an obvious glossing over of the disarray we will only need to turn the page to find. This is a truth filtered through the ego of a king, through the fuzzy lens of nostalgia and through royal deference.
But what is it trying to communicate at its core? That the existence of God’s covenant with us really doesn’t have anything to do with how good we are. Now, the efficacy of the covenant certainly does, but not its existence. Can you imagine what would happen if the covenant depended on our perfection? It quite simply would not exist at all. The everlasting covenant is not centered in human power or will in any way, it is centered in God’s. And God is steadfast, period. The covenant will remain, and God promised that way back with Noah and the rainbow. Thank goodness, for we will all continue to screw up in ways both new and exciting as well as habitual and everyday. Is our house right with God? I’m sure there are many ways I’m we can all convict ourselves, large and small.
David’s house was certainly not right with God, in the sense that nothing needed to be improved. But it was right enough in spirit, even if there was much to be desired in execution. David was not unrepentant on the whole; he had learned many things along the way. And what he had learned was this:
The God of Israel spoke, the Rock of Israel said to me: When one rules over people in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth.
What does this communicate? That while the existence of the covenant is never in question, that the chance to live into the covenant is never in question, the efficacy of the covenant, what it produces, is not guaranteed. When we consciously align ourselves with God’s purposes and intention, clarity and generativity are brought forth. David uses nature metaphors to express what the quality of ideal Godly rule looks like, and by extension, what it looks like when we all live into the covenant. That dawn light filled with color that seems to hold infinite possibility within it; it’s like that. The way the earth glistens and smells alive after a rain, the way green shoots respond and push upward; it’s like that. Who wouldn’t want to live their life within that kind of moment?
But a couple of notes: first, the *fear* of God. I think we can safely read that as a reverence or an awe of God, rather than actual fear. God doesn’t not wish to evoke fear from us, even if that were to mean we stayed in line. A reverence though, a holy awe, that kind of stance puts us in our place but in a good way, one that keeps us open rather than closed and cramped, one that naturally invites gratitude rather than grievance.
And second, notice that we are not promised that we will get what we want. Living into the covenant, aligning ourselves with God - the text tells us what that is like, not what it will get us. It is like the quality of being in the dawn of a day, it is like being able to see clearly, it is like feeling nourished and ready to burst into growth. Those are all qualities of life that are very different to the sense of “life going well” or success in earthly terms or getting what we desire, even if we what we desire is good and reasonable.
David misunderstood many things, but he understood the most important thing. He needed to keep returning to God, he needed to keep God at the center of his rule and his life. David was trying. Not always succeeding, but trying. Many of the kings that would come after him would not have even that barest quality. They would nakedly, plainly, chase after their own self-interest time and again.
The key, the only key, to living into the covenant, is the quality of openness that de-centers our selfhood and centers God instead. This is not so much an act of submission as it is an act of inoculation. There is such a thing as a healthy selfhood; God has given us that gift. But, it only comes if are willing to give it up, if we refuse to cling to it. Habitual self-centering, instead, little by little builds a precarious and desperate type of success; it will never be enough, it can never countenance it’s own limit, and so it turns into something that David likens to thorns, something that in the words of one of my commentaries, “chokes life and causes pain.” We heard similar language in our Swedenborg reading: that a focus on self leads to “a stifling and an extinction of love for the Lord and love for our neighbor.” These are our options, in essence. Do we want to be the ground that lets life arise, or the thorn that chokes it?
And so we find ourselves in the week of Thanksgiving, where we intentionally practice gratitude in community with each other. What I like about where this text is placed in the lectionary calendar is that it identifies not only what we can be grateful for, but how gratitude naturally arises. For it is one thing to make a list and say thank you; this act of gratitude de-centers the self for a moment, and that is good. But the ongoing spiritual work of Thanksgiving is to the de-center the self first and proactively so that gratitude can flow in every moment, so that our natural inclination is to look away from our ego and give thanks.
And so we say thank you to our steadfast God, who has covenanted with us to always be present and open and ready. We are about to enter into Advent which makes much of “Do not be afraid.” We need not fear that our God is capricious, we need not fear that our shortcomings, or our history of shortcomings, will chase God away. They never can and never will, for God keeps God’s promises.
And also, we receive an invitation, for the shape and form and quality of the covenant, like any agreement between parties, depends upon our partnership. What do we want it to be like? Perhaps like a Thanksgiving bounty brought in by people who work the earth with love, like a feast born from cooperation between guests, like a table with one more chair squeezed in, like a quiet and contemplative sufficiency. Perhaps like a clear sunrise, like morning, like the brightness after rain, like the grass that rises from the earth. That sounds good to me.
2 Samuel 23:1-7
1 These are the last words of David: “The inspired utterance of David son of Jesse, the utterance of the man exalted by the Most High, the man anointed by the God of Jacob, the hero of Israel’s songs: 2 “The Spirit of the LORD spoke through me; his word was on my tongue. 3 The God of Israel spoke, the Rock of Israel said to me: ‘When one rules over people in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, 4 he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth.’ 5 “If my house were not right with God, surely he would not have made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part; surely he would not bring to fruition my salvation and grant me my every desire. 6 But evil men are all to be cast aside like thorns, which are not gathered with the hand. 7 Whoever touches thorns uses a tool of iron or the shaft of a spear; they are burned up where they lie.”
True Christianity 439
As Long as We Believe That Everything Good Comes from the Lord, We Do Not Take Credit for the Things We Do As We Practice Goodwill
It is damaging for us to take credit for things we do for the sake of our salvation. Hidden within our credit-taking there are evil attitudes of which we are unaware at the time: denial that God flows in and works in us; confidence in our own power in regard to salvation; faith in ourselves and not in God; [the delusion that] we justify and save ourselves by our own strength; contempt for divine grace and mercy; rejection of reformation and regeneration by divine means; and especially disregard for the merit and justice of the Lord God our Savior, which we then claim as our own. In our taking credit there is also a continual focus on our own reward and perception of it as our first and last goal, a stifling and an extinction of love for the Lord and love for our neighbor, and total ignorance and unawareness of the pleasure involved in heavenly love (which takes no credit), while all we feel is our love for ourselves.
True Christianity 440
The pleasure of doing good to their neighbor is their reward. The angels in heaven feel this pleasure. It is a spiritual pleasure that is eternal. It immeasurably surpasses every earthly pleasure. People who have this pleasure do not want to hear about getting credit - they love doing good and feel joy in it.