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“One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” — 2 Samuel 23:3b-4
Thanks for the Promises
In the late 1950s and 60s, there was a popular TV game show called “Queen for a Day.” Host Jack Bailey would begin each program by asking the largely female studio audience: “Would you like to be queen for a day?”
He would then interview pre-selected contestants about their lives, gently prodding the women to reveal financial difficulties, recent tragedies, or problems with their children’s health. As the women would weep while telling about the wreck that put their husband out of work or the tornado that damaged the house or the special brace that little Johnny needed for his leg, sympathetic audience response would be measured on an “applause meter.”
The woman receiving the greatest response would be wrapped in a velvet robe, crowned “Queen for a Day,” and ushered to a throne to be showered with gifts, usually beginning with the focus of her particular need and then extending to luxury items such as a vacation or night on the town.
Would you like to be queen for a day? Or king?
We typically visualize royalty as people with enormous wealth who live posh and easy lives, appearing at the occasional state function while servants take care of the castle, prepare gourmet cuisine, and maintain the fleet of Bentleys.
Being a king or queen is surely more difficult than that. Even in countries where the office is a formality, royals have many civic responsibilities. Israelite kings such as David had it much harder. They were not only expected to provide economic and civil direction to the country, but also to lead the army into battle. When the elders first asked Samuel to appoint a king over Israel, he discouraged them, but they insisted “No! But we are determined to have a king over us, so that
We also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles”(1 Sam. 8:20). Being king over Israel was a tough job – and some kings weren’t very good at it. For the most part, David was the exception.
A prophetic king(v. 1-3a)
Today’s text is found within an appendix of sorts attached to the end of 1-2 Samuel, for the primary narrative ends with 2 Samuel 20 and picks up again with 1 Kings 1.
An editorial introduction to the text purports it to be “the last words of David,” but it is unlikely that these are truly comments from his deathbed. The content of the words suggests that they would have been written at an earlier time in David’s reign, perhaps in conjunction with the “everlasting covenant” (v. 5) that recalls God’s promise to David in 2 Samuel 7, even though the promise came through the prophet Nathan rather than as a direct word to David.
The heart of the text is twice named an “oracle.” This is a bit surprising: the word ne’um (“utterance,” or “oracle”) is generally limited to the speeches of prophets who have received a direct word from God. Today’s text is the earliest scriptural reference to David as a prophet, a tradition that gained momentum late in Israel’s history, when many of the psalms were attributed to David and also read as having prophetic significance. By the New Testament period, it was common to think of David as a prophet. Peter, for example, used a very loose quotation of Ps. 16:10 to claim that David had predicted Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:31).
The introduction consists of four parallel lines containing descriptive titles for David (v. 1b). The first and most obvious identifies him as the son of Jesse, his human father. The last three refer to his relationship with God as a divine favorite. The text is difficult and some of the titles can be translated in different ways, but they are impressive in every case.
The NRSV says he is “the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel.” This is quite different from the KJV, which calls David “the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel.” The NIV11 is similar, except it refers to David as “the hero of Israel’s songs.”
Verse 2 claims direct inspiration: “The Spirit of the LORD spoke through me; his word was on my tongue.” In the books of Samuel “the Spirit of Yahweh” inspired Saul to go into an ecstatic trance (1 Sam. 10:6, 10; 16:13) or to become a charismatic battle leader (1 Sam. 11:6). This is the only place in the books of Samuel that it refers to the giving of prophecy, as it did in other texts such as 1 Kgs. 18:12, 22:24; 1 Chron. 12:18; Isa. 61:1; Ezek. 11:5; and Mic. 3:8.
Verse 3 provides yet another introduction to the oracle, as David reportedly claims “The God of Israel spoke, the Rock of Israel said to me . . .”
A just king(vv. 3b-4)
With David’s oracle having been introduced multiple times, the reader is more than ready to hear what God reportedly said to David, but perhaps disappointed to learn that it doesn’t sound like an oracle at all, but like a typical mashal, or wisdom saying, such as those found in the book of Proverbs. The teaching consists of a proverb describing the ideal king (vv. 3b-4), an assertion that David’s rule was exemplary (v. 5a), and a contrasting observation concerning what fates righteous and wicked rulers might expect (vv. 5b-7).
The oracle begins with a description of what a king’s reign should be like: “When one rules over people in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God …” (v. 3b).
The word for “righteousness” can describe an individual’s moral character, but in the public arena carried the sense of doing what is right and just. A good king should be just in his dealings, so that good laws to protect human rights are in place, and all people are treated fairly.
Justice, like wisdom, has its roots in “the fear of God,” an attitude of reverence and respect for God that leads one to rule in keeping with divine principles such as those found in the Ten Commandments. We must keep in mind that this oracle was written in the context of a national entity whose identity was bound up in a unitary covenant with God: while it was appropriate for Israel, it is not intended as a guide for modern governments in pluralistic societies. Even so, basic principles of justice are both evident and applicable to any governmental system.
The wonder of a truly just leader is expressed in an appealing metaphor drawn from nature. The translation is difficult because there are no verbs in the entire verse, so they must be supplied. Here’s my attempt at a straightforward translation: (He is) like the light of morning at sunrise, a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain, (that brings) grass from the earth.
What can be more refreshing than a bright morning when the sky is clear, the air is tinged with the scent of rain, and the world is green with new growth?
A contrasting king(vv. 5-7)
The prevalence of politicians or government officials who are polarized, ineffective, or corrupt makes it hard to imagine a leader so just and effective that we would compare his or her term in office to a bright new morning.
Nevertheless, David claimed that his rule had met the standard: “Is not my house like this with God?” (v. 5a). As evidence of his just rule, David cited the divine promise recorded in 2 Samuel 7. When David had sought to build a house for Yahweh, the prophet Nathan relayed a message that God would instead build for David a house in the sense of a dynasty, in which one of his descendants would rule over Israel forever. “For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,” David said, “ordered in all things and secure” (v. 5ab).
Israel’s covenant theology taught that human obedience would lead to divine blessing, so that a righteous king could expect to have a successful rule: “Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?” (v. 5b).
We noted above that the “last words of David,” though called an oracle, take the form of a wisdom saying that contrasts the fate of the righteous and the wicked. Having declared his own rule to be just and therefore worthy of reward, David compared it to the destiny of those who do not fear God or lead rightly. “The godless are all like thorns that are thrown away,” he said, thorns so sharp and injurious that they must be piled up for burning with a spear shaft or iron bar rather than by hand (vv. 6-7). The text uses an emphatic verbal construction to stress their utter destruction: literally, “with burning fire they are burned on the spot.”
This judgment, like the positive one afforded David, is oversimplified: wicked leaders do not spontaneously combust. Nevertheless, the principle is that good leaders who practice justice bring order, beauty, and prosperity to their people, while evil or selfish leaders bring ruin to their countries and ultimately, to themselves.
Few of us will have the opportunity to lead a country, or even a county, but we do have the opportunity to vote for leaders whom we believe come closest to the biblical ideal of promoting a just society that cares for all of its citizens. BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for November 22, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: 2 Samuel 23:1-7
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
Our students want to be in charge. If you doubt this, simply ask them, the next time you are together, who wants to be in charge for the day. You will probably have more volunteers than you have ever had before. Most often, our students want to be in charge because they don’t like being told what to do, and they want to be the ones telling others what to do know. We know there is so much more to leading than telling others what to do, so put your students in places of leadership where they can learn how to lead. Allow them to lead and then debrief with them what it was like to lead.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Attitude Reflects Leadership” from Remember the Titans via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: 2 Samuel 23:1-7