2 Samuel 5:1-5
6th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s Church; 17.7.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
We are living in unusual and unpredictable times. When I began preparing this sermon at the beginning of the week, David Cameron was still Prime Minister, George Osborne was still Chancellor and Theresa May was just one possible candidate in a two-month long election campaign. In the Labour Party it was not clear whether there was going to be a leadership challenge, and if so, who would be allowed to stand. In the course of the week I’ve had a number of friends who’ve been called into meetings to be told that amidst the economic uncertainty their jobs are now under threat. We’ve heard reports too of racist attacks an abuse. At such a time, we are desperately in need of leadership, strong, coherent, unifying leadership. Once we get that in place, we hope it will all sort itself out.
But you know, I’m not so sure. Our Old Testament focus today challenges us to reassess what is needed.
For those of you who haven’t been with us the last few weeks, we have been doing an overview of the Old Testament. We’ve seen how God called a people out of slavery in Egypt and helped them to settle in the land of Canaan. We saw a couple of weeks ago how the people remained under regular attack from other tribal groups, and how those reflecting on those events had identified a pattern, a pattern of unfaithfulness to God leading to defeat and despair, leading to calling out for help, leading to the raising up of a liberator (a judge) to save the people, only for them to soon afterwards fall back into unfaithfulness and repeat the pattern all over again. And last week we saw in the story of Ruth how in the midst of national chaos God was still intimately concerned with lives of ordinary people.
Well today – we get to view the next stage of the Old Testament story through the lenses of three national leaders – Saul, David and Solomon, and their story has much to speak to us today.
The people of Abraham had always rejected the idea of having a king. A bit like the people of the Roman Republic a thousand years later, who saw kingship as the same thing as tyranny, the people of Abraham resisted having a ruler, because their ruler in everyday life was God himself. It was God who they were accountable to; God who guided them; it was their shared faith, not a national figure-head, that united them.
But now as they looked around at the city states of Canaan, all of whom had kings, they began to want kings too. They came to believe that the peace and prosperity they yearned for could only be achieved by a king. The biblical account is distinctly ambivalent about this, almost as if there is a divine sigh: “You can have a king, but its not going to bring you what you are looking for.”
Saul is appointed Israel’s first king amidst much fanfare. He looks every part the king. Tall, strong and victorious in battle, he is everything the people feel they have been missing. Things go well initially, but by the end the people have grown tired and resentful of him. His reign is marked by failure. The task of uniting the twelve tribes of Israel and providing the centralising point for this emerging nation has proved beyond him. Not only did he lack the diplomatic skills, but his popular support was undermined by the emergence of a young, charismatic, dynamic leader, David. Saul, consumed by jealousy and suspicion, fears a coup against him, and on numerous occasions tries to take David’s life. His reign ends a failure, unable to overcome the Philistine threat or unite the people.
It is difficult not to read into Saul’s life the story of some of our modern-day leaders, who are swept into power on a wave of euphoria and optimism. I remember well that day in 1997 when Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister. In London, where I was living at the time, people were smiling on the tubes, strangers were talking to each other, there was a general feeling that now things would be better. And yet not many years later, he has become seen as one of the least liked Prime Ministers of all time. An article was written on the BBC website just last week to that very effect. The Chilcott enquiry has ruthlessly exposed his shortcomings and failure of judgement.
It can be tempting to pillory our leaders, to place all the blame at their door. And, yes, it is important that we hold them to account, that we expect much of them, but we must also acknowledge that failure goes with the territory, especially when that failure is based on expectations we have created. Kingship was never going to deliver all that the people of Israel wanted it too. Our politicians are never going to deliver all the aspirations that we may long for. Many of the things that matter most in life – loving relationships, hope, peace, strength in difficult times – rely not so much on our politicians but on where we place our faith.
And then David, by popular acclaim, comes to the throne. He has already acquired a significant reputation as a war hero, and now he uses his influence to unite all the tribes behind him. For the first time, Israel becomes a cohesive, nation state. He captures Jerusalem and turns it into his capital city, a neutral place not belonging to any one tribe. He brings the ark of the covenant – the symbol of God’s commitment to all the people of Israel that has been carried with the people ever since Mount Sinai – to Jerusalem, and there gives it a permanent home. David is revered as Israel’s greatest king.
But the Old Testament is not hagiography – it is not a biography where all the failings and errors have been airbrushed out. This portrait of David leaves him very much warts and all. Most notable is the almost surgical precision with which the writers dissect one of David’s lowest moments: his adultery with a soldier’s wife, Bathsheba, and his attempts to cover it up, first by deception and then by murder. Shocking though such acts were, they were fairly typical royal behaviour for the time, (and indeed up until recently) but what makes the account unusual is the place given to the prophet Nathan’s public denunciation of David’s behaviour, and David’s sincere confession and change of heart. All kings acted badly. But none ever apologised for it. Here was David, Israel’s greatest king, acknowledging his failings, acknowledging that the covenant with God applied as much to him as anyone else, acknowledging that God was more powerful than he, and acknowledging that he stood in need of forgiveness.
All of us need the humility to recognise and confess that we fall short, that God’s call to live a life of love for him and for our neighbours does apply to us as well as everyone else, and that there are many times when we come up short. Leadership of any kind, indeed life itself, requires humility.
When David dies, one of his sons, Solomon, succeeds him, although not without an amount of court intrigue and scheming that would make Michael Gove look like a saint. Historians look back on Solomon’s reign as Israel’s golden age. It becomes militarily powerful – for one thing, he built 1400 iron chariots, the equivalent of our fighter jets today). He develops major trading alliances and establishes significant political clout. He cements Israel’s “special relationship” with the super power of the day by marrying an Egyptian princess. He establishes Israel as a leader in culture, through commissioning grand building projects, including the Temple, and through the writing of philosophy and books of wisdom, including some of the book of Proverbs.
But the biblical account is much more circumspect in its appraisal. Yes, he builds the Temple, yes he pronounces some wise judgments, but he fails in two crucial areas that will keep recurring as a fault line for the next few hundred years. For Solomon’s grand projects have led to a spiralling deficit. They end up being paid for by onerous taxation, and when that is not enough, Solomon resorts to the tool of most totalitarian regimes – forced labour and slavery. This exploitation of the poor, explicitly warned against in God’s covenant with the people, leads to growing dissent. As does his second major failure – a wandering away from the faith of Abraham’s descendants. This economic and religious failure leads to one failed coup attempt during his lifetime, and the collapse of his kingdom on his death.
A look at Solomon’s life raises the question: by what criteria do we measure success? As a leader, future generations may marvel at his achievements, but not the poor he exploited on the way. And the Bible leaves us in no doubt which mattered more. As we look for leadership in our country, we need to pray for leaders whose concern will be for the poor and those in need, not just within our country but across our world. And for ourselves too we need to ask: what criteria of success do we apply to our lives? Is it about the wealth or the wisdom or the power and fame that Solomon achieved, or is it about steadfastness in faith, the remaining faithful to God in the ups and downs of our lives?
These three first and only kings of a united Israel would well reward a longer study, and do make use of the suggested reading notes in the leaflet. But even today’s brief overview gives us some insights into our present day context:
Where, ultimately, are we placing our trust for the future? In institutions and individuals that inevitably break under the weight of undue expectation, or in God, our rock in times of trouble?
What qualities are we looking for in those who lead? Perfection or the humility to admit failure and to seek forgiveness? Do we ourselves model that?
And what priorities are we looking for in those who lead us? National status and claims of greatness, or the meeting of the needs of the poor in our world.
We face challenging times ahead. May God guide and lead us all.