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The Tricky Twists and Turns of God's Promise to David

by Virginia Smith

A police officer in a recent TV drama promised a worried storeowner that he would return to check on the safety of the premises. As they returned to their patrol car, the officer—s partner inquired as to whether that would even be possible. Cynically, the officer replied, —Yeah, that—s gonna happen.—

Contemporary society is accused of being seriously commitment phobic. Many seem to avoid committing themselves to anything more long-term or life-changing than lunch next Wednesday. And even serious commitments often include escape clauses, i.e., pre-nuptial agreements or pre-arrangements to roll over a 401(k) plan.

Perhaps we need a crash course in the serious nature of commitment and how best to fulfill our responsibilities. What better teacher could we have for this seminar than God? God is the ultimate role model in the fine art of honoring commitments. This is seen time and again in God—s faithfulness to the covenant obligations he took on with the people he chose to have a special relationship with him. The sometimes fickle, sometimes recalcitrant Israelites wandered very far very often from their side of the covenant pact. But God? Never!

However, it is one specific promise made by God to one specific individual that will concern us here. The way God chooses to fulfill that promise will have implications that reverberate down the centuries to our own era. It—s a fascinating tale with twists and turns worthy of the most skilled storyteller.

First, the King Makes a Promise

This would be a good time to grab your Bible and follow along. Turn to Chapter 7 of the Second Book of Samuel. Another version is found in Chapter 17 of the First Book of Chronicles. Chronicles was written rather late and often provides a somewhat different look at material already presented in the books of the Torah, Samuel and Kings. Here, however, the chronicler—s account is remarkably similar to the earlier book, 2 Samuel.

If this were a Russian novel, we would first read through about 100 pages of background material and scene setting. Here, we don—t need that much, thankfully, but we do need some. David, the man later Hebrew history would view as Israel—s greatest king, has finally managed to capture Jerusalem and is in the process of establishing his capital there. Now that he finally has a breather, he has the leisure to consider some peacetime projects. He has already constructed a beautiful home for himself. Cedar was imported from Phoenicia (today—s Lebanon) to the north, an area so famous for this magnificent wood that even today, the Lebanese flag is centered by a leafy, green cedar tree.

His newly acquired opulence is making David uncomfortable because, ever since the time of Moses and the Exodus over two centuries earlier, the Dwelling Tent, which housed the Ark of the Covenant, which in turn housed the Tablets of the Law (Israel—s most sacred objects) had been hauled around from place to place. The presence of these centerpieces of Israelite religious practice automatically turned the locale in which they were temporarily housed into a shrine. Over the years, there had been many of these: Gilgal, Shiloh, Mizpah, Ophrah, Dan.

David now proposes the construction of a permanent sanctuary in the newly established capital to honor God. When he brings this idea before Nathan, his court prophet agrees. It seems reasonable, logical, even pious. Who could possibly object? Well, as it turns out, God could.

Then, God Makes a Promise

God—s reply to David—s proposition runs something like this (v-e-r-y loosely translated), —I—ve been doing just fine so far, and I—ve never complained about my lack of permanent housing so, while I—m not entirely opposed to the idea, it needs to be put on hold for a while as there are bigger things to attend to.—

The house David intends to build is clearly a tangible structure of stone and cedar. God, speaking through Nathan, —declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever— (2 Sm 7:11b-13). The house God intends to build is a dynasty, a line of kings directly descended from David. God here founds the House of David. And almost as a throwaway line, he adds, —By the way, your son can take care of building that temple of yours.—

Few plays on words survive translation into another language. This one does, and thank goodness, for so much depends on this tricky phrasing.

Dot Those —I—s—; Cross Those —T—s—

One of the nicest things about God—s commitments is that there—s no fine print. It doesn—t take a legal team with a stack of degrees in contract law to figure out the terms. The duration of the commitment is clear cut. You—ll find it in the final word of the passage cited above. Yes, just one word...forever! Seriously? Evidently. It—s reiterated twice for emphasis (2 Sm 7:16).

This promise wasn—t a gift to David for his unfailing sinlessness. Oh my, no! By this time in his career, David had done a great deal more with his hands than strum the strings of a harp. His many military campaigns had left his hands stained with a number of people—s blood. Still, a thousand years later in a sermon at Pisidian Antioch, Paul refers to God as saying, —I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart who will carry out all my wishes— (Acts 13:22b). David made many mistakes prior to receiving God—s promise and went on to make even more grievous ones thereafter, but one trait that endeared him to God was his humility.

David, like most kings of his day, was an absolute monarch, answerable to no one. Humility was not high on the list of such rulers— attributes. David, on the other hand, harbored no illusions about himself. When he was wrong (which was often), he admitted it, asked forgiveness, and tried not to repeat the offense. When even a king was small and insignificant, he acknowledged that as well. Following Nathan—s declaration of God—s promise of an unending dynasty, David went off to spend time before his Lord in prayer. —Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house that you have brought me thus far?—

The Kinks in the Davidic Kings

And so the promise was made. Did the Israelite people put much stock in that forever clause? Definitely! It seemed to underscore their status as chosen and insure that God would always be with them through the continuity of succession to the Davidic throne. But if David wasn—t perfect, wait until you meet the motley group who would inherit his throne over the next four centuries. First came Solomon, who wasn—t so bad, but his son Rehoboam managed to permanently divide the kingdom. Some, like Hezekiah and Josiah, tried hard to be worthy successors to their ancestor and to live godly lives. Others, like Manasseh, were so depraved they engaged in the sacrifice of infants, remembering neither David nor God. Others were weak or ineffectual or cunning or politically ambitious. In other words, they ran the gamut you—d expect to find in the ruling class of any nation. Nonetheless, for better or worse, they were David—s offspring, and the promise continued.

And then, during the reign of Zedekiah (597-587 b.c.e.), hot Babylonian breath was scorching the necks of the residents of Jerusalem. Mighty Babylon laid siege to the city, ultimately breached its walls, ransacked it, and left it a smoking ruin as its remaining residents were carted off into exile in faraway Babylon. —They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, then put out the eyes of Zedekiah; they bound him in fetters and took him to Babylon— (2 Kgs 25:7). So much for the promise to David, or so it seemed.

Upon the Judahites' return half a century later, one Sheshbazzar, —the prince of Judah,— became governor. He may have been the son of an earlier Davidic king, Jehoiachin, but it is his nephew, Zerubbabel, who comes to the fore to spur the rebuilding of the temple. The Davidic connections of these two post-exilic figures was tenuous at best and soon unravels altogether. For reasons unknown, Zerubbabel slides off the biblical pages, and with that, we truly have come to the end of the Davidic line. Or have we? Things are seldom what they seem in this unpredictable saga.

Enter, of All People, Matthew

Our time machine, which has been zipping along at a pretty good clip, now shifts into overdrive and moves us nearly 500 years down the road in one quantum leap. The author of the Gospel of Matthew is preparing to put ink to papyrus or parchment and is seeking a catchy opening line. His will be a gospel directed almost exclusively to those who have come to a belief in Jesus from a Jewish background. Often called the People of the Book because they had almost no secular literature, the Jews were steeped in their scriptures. Not even the slightest nuances of meaning escaped them. They knew all about the aborted promise to David. Count on it. Matthew certainly counted on it, electing to open with, —An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.— Son of David? That should have perked up a good many ears. He goes on to create a stylized genealogy for Jesus. If you read through it, you—ll find the names of most of the Davidic kings mentioned earlier. Matthew is establishing Jesus— credentials.

In his second chapter, Matthew and only Matthew introduces the Magi as Jesus— first visitors. These exalted visitors bring gifts, each of which speaks to some aspect of what Jesus— role will be. One of those gifts is gold, fitting for a king.

Throughout his gospel, one of Matthew—s major themes will have to do with the kingdom, not the Davidic kingdom, but the kingdom of God. This Jesus, a legitimate Davidic heir, will reign in God—s kingdom. The promise will endure forever, just not here, just not in the way people supposed. Never was it more obvious that God—s ways are not our ways.

Luke Takes a Different Approach

Luke—s Gentile audience is not as likely to have been raised on the Hebrew Scriptures, so Luke takes another tack. He has Jesus— family caught up in a great Roman census. —All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea to the city of David called Bethlehem because he was descended from the house and family of David— (Lk 2:4).

In Luke—s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, the leaders of the nascent church are gathered in Jerusalem for the very first council. Jesus— relative, James, recalls the messianic vision of the prophet Amos, —...and I will rebuild the dwelling of David which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago— (Acts 15:16-18).

During Advent, we hear Isaiah—s prophetic voice ringing down the corridors of time, —A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse [David's father], and a branch shall grow out of his roots.— And then we hear what Luke commandeered as part of Jesus— inaugural address (Lk 4:14-30): —The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord— (Is 11:1-2).

So It Was Promised and So It Came to Be

That shoot grew to be the tree overarching the universe. We discover that the promise wasn—t made just to David nor his genetic offspring nor even his Israelite people, but rather to us all. We, too, are heirs to the kingdom for we are heirs with Jesus, the Christ, the son of David. —I have made a covenant with my chosen one. I have sworn to my servant David: —I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations—— (Ps 89:3-4). How—s that for keeping a promise? How—s that for commitment?

Virginia Smith has an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University. She is the author of God for Grownups (Thomas More, 2002).

Next: The Family of Jesus (by Elizabeth McNamer)


Living the Scriptures

How do we model commitment in our lives? Do we exercise caution in making promises, realizing that we must in conscience honor them? How good is our word? Can the people in our lives count on us? To what or to whom are we seriously committed? Do we need to recommit from time to time?



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