Friday, March 13, 2015

Kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel (part 3)

In my last post, I looked at some passages relating to the Israelites’ request for a king and Samuel’s response to it. These passages describe the Israelites’ request as a rejection of God as their king. But I argued that the problem was not kingship in itself; rather, the problem was that the Israelites expected the king, instead of God, to save them so that they could continue worshipping other gods.

Now I’d like to look at another passage that deals with the establishment of kingship. But instead of humans establishing it, God does. The passage, 2 Samuel 7, records God’s response to David after David offers to build the temple. God gives David some pretty extravagant promises. He says that He will establish David’s kingdom, that David’s son will build the temple and even that David’s son would have God as his father. The last point is easy for Christians to overlook because we’re used to addressing God as “Father,” but in ancient Israel, having God as their adoptive father gave kings a unique relationship with and status before God. Now, having a king is more than just OK; now the kings are tied to God more closely than almost anyone else in Israel (arguably even more than the priests, who are not called God’s sons).

One scholar I read summed up the view in this and other passages by saying, “The king is God.” But that completely oversteps what the text said. In fact, all these glorious promises come after God has refused to allow David to build the temple. In other nations, building a temple might be seen as doing the god a favor, but here the Lord is clear: David can’t do God any favors. In fact, God is the one doing David a favor by building up his dynasty. (There are some puns here making this point: both the temple and the dynasty are called a “house.”) It’s only after tearing down any illusions David may have had about helping God that God starts to build David up and give him the high status. Kings in Israel may have had high status, but they were far from divine.

But even if the king is not seen as divine, they’re still portrayed very positively, in contrast to the negative picture in 1 Samuel 8 and 12.

There’s something else to note here. Even before He gets to the promises for David’s line specifically, God makes some promises for Israel as a whole. Specifically, He says, “And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.” (2 Samuel 7:10-11). Remember that kingship was established just after the period of the judges, and that as I argued last time, the Israelites were looking to be freed from foreign oppressors. Now God is offering them the freedom they crave. The problem was never the Israelites’ desire for peace and liberation; the problem was their looking for it through human systems and refusing to give up their idols.

David and his descendants are not replacements for God; rather their authority is completely dependent upon God’s. They also, in theory, will not be the kinds of kings who put up with idolatry. The building of the temple, which God also promises in this passage, demonstrates the king’s devotion to God and his role in leading the Israelites in proper worship of the one true God. Thus, they are the opposite of the type of king criticized in 1 Samuel.

David’s prayer in the second half of 2 Samuel 8 shows that he agrees with God’s assessment. He gives thanks and recognizes that God put him in his current position (v.18). He also affirms that there is only one true God: “Therefore you are great, O Lord God. For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears” (v. 22).

Of course, David’s descendants didn’t always keep this in mind. Some were proud and thought of themselves as above God’s law (See Uzziah’s actions in 2Chronicles 26:16-21). Others committed idolatry and led the Israelites to do the same. These promises found fulfillment to a limited extent during Israel’s history, but we are still awaiting their truest fulfilment when David’s greatest descendant, Jesus, returns to rule and bring perfect peace.

For now, let us note that the positions taken in these two passages in Samuel are not contradictory, despite the way they might appear in a superficial reading. They are coming at the same truth from two sides: A good king must be dependent upon God’s power and must seek to glorify the true God, not replace Him.

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