1st and 2nd Samuel

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1st and 2nd Samuel

    04.03.18 | by Justin Porath


    A few modest reflections on the backstage theological tension within 1st and 2nd Samuel...

    David’s rise to power has been a series of detours. The moment that should have been popping with congratulatory confetti and pageantry (his anointing as King in 1 Samuel 16) was instead downgraded to a virtual footnote in his ongoing evasion campaign against King Saul.

    1 Samuel closes with the sunset of Saul’s rule, drawing out in some detail the final tragic acts of a king who has known for some while that he was on borrowed time. We find Saul bleeding to death from multiple arrow wounds, begging his body man to spare him the torture of capture. When he refuses, Saul makes his own suicide attempt which, almost as a final commentary on his career, fails. In the end, he is forced to rely on a nearby Amalekite for a mercy killing.

    All this should be good news — one less obstacle between David and the throne — except all it really means is that the exchanging of king God for king Saul has failed as a realistic solution to Israel’s problems. Not two chapters after Saul is crowned (1 Samuel 11:14) God is forced to launch a search for his replacement with the added selection criteria: someone “after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13.14).

    As we watch David absorb the news of Saul’s death in the first few chapters of 2 Samuel, two things become obvious. First: that the seeds of David’s downfall are already in full view in these opening chapters, on display via his penchant for violence and passion in the form of impulsiveness. And second: that Saul’s death is not good news at all, but a chillingly cautionary tale against our tendency — my tendency — to replace God with politics, human leadership, or any other terrestrial solution to spiritual problems.

    The facts on the ground are simple: Israel has come to believe that their difficulty in acquiring promised land and achieving a strong national autonomy and defense is the direct result of their not having a king. To be quite honest, I identify with this line of thinking. It basically offers a situational assessment that takes into account all of the available evidence and crafts a practical solution. Repeated, failed military campaigns equals failed coordination and leadership equals the need for a more strategic and unifying chain of command equals the need for a king. Simple, practical, actionable. They got everything right if their mission was simply to acquire land.

    "They got everything right if their mission was simply to acquire land."

    But the purpose of “the land” was to be a forward-operating-base in the war of ideals and ideas about who God is, a war Israel stood to win not merely by having land, but by having a compelling and unflinching witness shaped by the priorities of God lived out in the world. The land, according to the biblical witness, is merely a gift and a resource to this end.

    "Like Israel, my tendency and desire to replace God with practical solutions reveals itself most frequently when I misunderstand the mission..."

    Like Israel, my tendency and desire to replace God with practical solutions reveals itself most frequently when I misunderstand the mission; when I start counting heads on a Sunday morning or attempt to make a case for success based on how many highly praised events or programs we’ve run. But the inconvenient truth is that counting heads and launching programs are breadcrumbs in comparison to the great calling we each share to grow in our faith and in our witness. Short of this we, like Israel, risk having a land without a witness.

    If Jesus’ travels on the road to Jerusalem reveal anything, it’s that growing a crowd is easy, while growing a church — a community of Christians growing in faith and witness — takes immense sacrifice, courage, and obedience.