Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Tricky Twists and Turns of God's Promise
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)
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
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
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
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
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?
Next: The Family of Jesus (by Elizabeth McNamer)