A Complicated Character
Who is the real David? On the one hand, a humble shepherd boy who courageously obeys the Lord and is anointed king of Israel. On the other hand, adulterer and murderer in his dealings with Bathsheba and Uriah. On the first hand, sorrowfully repentant, and Psalmist. On the other hand, abandons his duty in providing justice for his daughter, Tamar, who is raped by David's firstborn. On the first hand, commissions his successor, Solomon, to keep the commandments of the Lord and to walk in faithfulness. On the other hand, in his final dying words, entrusts his personal vendettas to Solomon to carry out vengeance against those who humiliated him.
Fr. Timothy reminds us, "It's not how we begin life, but how we end it." Lent shows us we aren't exceptional, standing in need of God's mercy. "No one is good, but God alone. Do not imagine otherwise. It is the only corrective to our egos."
Listen to this episode or read the interview transcript.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And co host Fr. Timothy Lowe, retired priest and former rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem is with me as well today. Hello, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:31
Greetings, Hollie. Nice to be with you.
Hollie Benton 0:34
So we're recording this in the first week of Lent, awaiting the Messiah, the Lord's anointed one. Anticipating this, we've gone back into the Old Testament to follow this trajectory over the last few podcast episodes - the people's search for the anointed one, the king. The Lord first anointed Saul as king. Saul was a failure. Then the Lord anoints the shepherd boy, David. But not long after David secures position as King do we hear of David's failures, acting just like most other earthly kings, where power and position go to their heads, forgetting their place under the Lord's authority. But we also remember David's repentance, we use his prayers of contrition, Psalm 51 comes to mind. It's used regularly in daily prayers and liturgical services. So David is really a complicated character. At times, he behaves like the dutiful shepherd boy caring for his father's flock. And other times he devours members of the flock for his own gain and then recognizes his sin and guilt and repents from it and resolves to be faithful again to his Lord and Master. It seems the character we see in David captures both the worst and the very best of what a human could be, soaring to the heights in humble and courageous obedience as the Lord's anointed one even as a shepherd boy, but then also plunging to the depths of sin, with transgressions in adultery and murder. It's like David speaks from both sides of his mouth. And we'll see this even today as we read the passage of David's last words on his deathbed. Like David, maybe not on so grandiose a scale, we humans are fickle, and we cause others to suffer from our own frailty, our own fickleness, our own ego gets in the way. So Fr. Timothy, please provide some more context for what we are going to hear today in First Kings.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 2:30
Well, thank you, Hollie. So it's the first week of Lent, right? We've just begun this classic Lenten journey, this period of repentance to prepare for the feast of the Lord's resurrection. To start something is easy. Everything that's new, we start, we have some energy, we focus, but you know, it's not how we start life, but it's how we end it, which is why I wanted to focus on these few passages about David's death, the end of his life. How does he end his life because that will be the most telling. So as we read also in the Gospel, those who persevere to the end will be saved. So yes, David is very much a fickle character, hot and cold. And I encourage people to read his large section, he gets a large section of text in Second Samuel and First Samuel, so it's really quite a lot. They want us to focus on him. So where are we? Last time we talked about failure of David and Uriah, adultery, premeditated murder. After that? Psalm 51. David repents. There's a story between Nathan and the parable of the guy with the one lamb and whatnot, read it, read it. After David's repentance from his sin against Uriah, we have this horrible story of palace intrigue in David's own house. It's a story involving Absalom, whose name is quite powerful. It means father of peace, and the firstborn of David, Amnon, which means faithful one. See, it's a mocking name. Amnon is lusting after Absalom's sister, Tamar. Amnon pretends to be ill because he's secretly in love with his sister, which of course is a no no. He asks the king to let his sister attend to him on his pretend illness, and in doing so, connives a way to get her alone and to rape her. Tamar's brother, Absalom, will go and seek revenge because the king will not give Tamar justice as he kicks her out. Amnon wants nothing to do with her after he's had her where before he wanted to marry her. And ultimately Absalom, the brother, takes Tamar into the house, and waits for his moment of revenge. There's this wonderful statement by the Bedouin, "I took my revenge after 40 years, but I was hasty," because revenge is rooted in justice, seeking justice. Now what happens is David refuses to act justly towards Tamar, because he (Amnon) was the firstborn so he makes an excuse, he allows lust and injustice, and this will be the undoing of his house. This is why I tell the story as a background. David refuses to act kingly, acts corruptly, unjustly. Later on after a two year period, that's why I made that Bedouin statement, Absalom seeks a way to exact revenge and get justice for his sister and kills the firstborn Amnon of David's house. And then all chaos breaks loose. Absalom flees to exile. David is in mourning because he realizes his sin, okay, so this is the two-sided part of David that we've begun to see. You see, the one who's capable of repentance, understands repentance, begs, understands justice. That's the story between Nathan and David about Uriah, and now he sees the same thing, so he mourns Absalom, even though Absalom is ultimately revolting against him, and he will come back and David will go into exile. So I want people just to see the full plot because it's worthy of a full length movie, the supposably head of the royal family and the Davidic dynasty. My point is it's corrupt at the core. Even when there's repentance, the fact that if someone can repent, that means they know better. You cannot repent, you see, you cannot go through Lent, if in fact you don't understand sin and your own sinfulness, otherwise it's meaningless. So you are essentially judged by it, whether you think of it in those terms or not, you know right from wrong, you know what God wants, you know your failures. So as the whole household is falling apart, David goes into exile, flees Absalom who takes over, comes into Jerusalem, defiles his father's house even more. You can read it. Finally Absalom gets killed, and David returns. But it's not a triumphal return, like we've heard about earlier when he's coming to Jerusalem celebrating now that he has secured the house and the dynasty forever. So this brings us to the point that we're going to talk about today. But first, let me just give an image. As I said, it's not how you begin, shepherd boy, humble, from nowhere, chosen above all of your other brothers, even though you're the youngest, given all of this grace. So if you read the beginning of First Kings, chapter one, it's the aged David, old and advanced in years, it says. And he couldn't keep warm. Now, this is such a strange story, but when you hear a strange story, and you scratch your head, but what's the function, the purpose of this story, it's to give you a lasting image, okay, so that you will see how he ends, and how far he has fallen, despite how we may glorify him in hymns. And Psalm 51, being the psalm of repentance, as you mentioned already, Hollie, that we hear so much in our church services, and we should even use it in our private prayers. So he can't keep himself warm, and so they ask to bring in a beautiful young maid. And we know that his past history with young, beautiful women, right, to serve him. Her name is Abishag who came to serve David in his old age. What is the meaning of that name? Very telling. It means my father goes astray. In the name itself is the message of the fall of the House of David. And since he can't get warm, she snuggles him. Now what is odd before we read today's passage, is the Bible mentions that he did not know her. Now, in English translation, it says sexually because that's the implication of knowledge, you see, Adam knew Eve and so on, so forth. So what I want you to see is David as an impotent King, powerless, old, there's nothing there, okay, there's nothing there. So let's hear now his last words on his deathbed.
Hollie Benton 8:45
Thank you, Father. So here's the first half of the passage now from First Kings starting at chapter two. "When David's time to die drew near, he charged Solomon his son, saying, I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do, and wherever you turn, that the Lord may establish His Word, which he spoke concerning me saying, if your sons take heed to their way to walk before me in faithfulness, with all their heart, and with all their soul, there shall not fail you a man on the throne of Israel." So it seems here at the beginning of this deathbed speech, King David the pious King David is imparting an important message to his son, Solomon. The message really isn't original. It's the same word written in the Law of Moses. We've heard it before. It's the critical reminder of the priorities one should keep, submitting to the commandments of the Lord, is the kind of deathbed speech that is inspiring by so pious a king, isn't it, Fr. Timothy?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 10:00
It's absolutely perfection. And the fact that this is the thing that comes out of his mouth to Solomon means he knows what is expected. It heightens his failure. Because we can't say, I don't know. I don't know. I didn't know, I wasn't instructed. No, he was instructed. And the fact that he makes this point at the very end of his life further condemns him. And it also sets, if you will, Solomon up, because he has been told. Think about this, okay, we go to church, we hear the Gospel, we go through cycles, as we are now in Lent. So it's not that we have not heard, it's not like this is new to us. Therefore, as it says, in the Gospel, our sin is greater because we can't claim no one taught us. So this is the writer hitting the next generation. And this is the point, this is the whole point of Lent, okay, every year. It's not like, okay, this is new stuff here. There is nothing new. The point is to render us without excuse. The issue is hearing, which we've heard, and doing, which we may or may not. And as I said earlier, it's not how we begin, it's how we end. So this is a perfect setup. David knows the catechism. He knows the instruction. And so here when we have again, Solomon, as he's beginning to reign, because David is going to die in the next few verses, it is the rubric under which Solomon must act. How he began, perfectly, how he ends? Again, following the universal biblical pattern of no one is good, but God alone. What is the human problem? It just chases us constantly in the biblical text, not in real life, because we glorify people all the time. We make our heroes and we make them more than what they were in real life, as examples. Should we do that? That's a different discussion. So here we have the words to Solomon. Now what people may not realize is to get this point of Solomon being king involved another intrigue within David's house, not that that took place between Amnon and Absalom, but now another one, between the next in line who thought he was to be king. And David goes around and chooses, under the influence of Bathsheba, Solomon to be his chosen successor.
Hollie Benton 12:25
And David doesn't stop there with his deathbed speech, it gets a little more complicated. So here are the final, final words of David lest Solomon be sure he knows what the heart of the matter is for David. He says, "Moreover, you know also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, how he dealt with the two commanders of the armies of Israel, Abner the son of Ner, and Amasa, the son of Jether, whom he murdered avenging in time of peace blood which had been shed in war and putting innocent blood upon the girdle about my loins and upon the sandals on my feet. Act therefore, according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace, but deal loyally with the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite and let them be among those who eat at your table, for with such loyalty they met me when I fled from Absalom, your brother. And there is also with you Shimei, the son of Gera, the Benjaminite from Bahurim, who cursed me with a grievous curse on the day when I went to Mahanaim. But when he came down to meet me at the Jordan, I swore to him by the Lord saying, I will not put you to death with the sword. Now therefore hold him not guiltless. For you are a wise man, you will know what you ought to do to him, and you shall bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol." So whoa! Is this the same pious David? Is this some kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character? It seems that he has some unfinished business and grievances he's leaving with his son Solomon to settle the score. So what's going on with David here? Why is he instructing his son, Solomon, to carry out his vengeance? Are the vengeance killings really a part of the Lord's instruction for David and for his son, Solomon?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 14:13
The repentant David knows the catechism, the instruction, follow the commandments. And when you juxtapose and move immediately into his death bed revenge list of people who have wronged him, wronged him personally, okay, it has nothing to do with the example of Amnon and Tamar, which was an injustice. And so he wants his revenge. First he lays the law of God on Solomon, rightly, and then he lays this on Solomon. So my point is, who is the real David? Who's the real David? Don't try to sugarcoat David and finally make him out this repentant sinner. It happens, he acknowledged his sin against Uriah. That's it. The rest of it he does not acknowledge, he does not acknowledge the lack of justice for Tamar and now the people when he was fleeing in his humiliation, some of these examples of people who were celebrating his humiliation and exile. One is Shimei, who happened to be related to Saul. So he mocked him as he had to leave the land, crosses over Jordan, which means he's completely exiled out of the Promised Land. My point is, let's not pretend and glorify the human being. That's not me. This is what the Scripture does. It does not glorify the human being. And this whole story of David is a story of instruction. It's a story of instruction. Let's not go looking for historical places related to the life of David and so on. David is mentioned once, if I recall, one place in some extra biblical reference, right, it's not about David, it's a story about the failure of the human being. And we were told early on about kingship, it was a rejection of the rule of God. You remember the encounter with the people coming to Samuel and wanting a king to be like the other nations. They are not exceptional. They are like everybody else. The message for us during Lent is we also are not exceptional. We're like everybody else. If you go to the Canon of St. Andrew, during the first week of Lent, you hear all those Old Testament references, and then you have to prostrate and say, have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy upon me. My point is, we are not different. No one is good, but God alone. We may not believe it, because we like to imagine someone is good. But just take the biblical message, repeat it, let it hit you with the possibility that it might finally bring real repentance, and humility. There's this one story. This demonstrates everything that I've just been trying to say, Okay, I'm 19. I'm living outside of Jerusalem in a small village and I'm reading the Ladder of Divine Ascent of John Climacus, which we'll celebrate him during the fifth Sunday of Lent. There's a story, it's about a guy who thinks he wants to become a monk. So he goes to the monastery and says, I want to become a monk. The abbot sees that he's a little bit arrogant, cocky, and instead of putting him off says, Well, can you do obedience? He says, oh, like iron to the fire, I will be obedient, all this sort of grandiose ideas about himself. So he said, okay, no, you can't become a monk. But what you can do is stay at the gate with the gatekeeper. And when someone comes to the monastery, you prostrate yourself before him and say, Pray for me, I'm an epileptic. It's a great story. Someone shows up, he bows, pray for me, I'm an epileptic. At first, he's zealous, he's cocky and sure of himself. Then the second year goes along, the third year goes along. And finally he gets the point. Even though he's not an epileptic, he really is prostrating himself and asking forgiveness from whoever enters. The story goes, the gatekeeper dies, by that time they had bonded and become true brothers. And so finally, the abbot sees all of this and see that he has really embraced repentance and humbled himself through humiliation, which was the point. So as the story goes, the abbot is willing to now welcome him into the monastic brotherhood. But he begs the abbot to say no. He says, If I have found favor with God, I will go and die soon, and be with the gatekeeper I've spent these years with. He soon dies, and is reunited in death to his brother gatekeeper. It is in the humiliation. This is our only hope. Let us humiliate ourselves, even if we don't mean it, because real humiliation is painful. David, painful. This moment of hope, Psalm 51, repentance. But it doesn't last. It doesn't last. So David is a tragic figure, and is one of the many tragic figures. Now I'm going to leave one last image, read the Gospel of Matthew, follow the life of Peter in the Gospel of Matthew, his rise and his fall. In the Gospel of Matthew, there is no rise again, there is rise and there is fall. The last words of any of the 12 disciples in the Gospel of Matthew come out of the mouth of Peter. After he's in the courtyard, and not once, not twice, three times, he denies that he ever knew Christ. These are his last words. I never knew the man. Okay, it's technical. I never knew the man, when the servant girl chases him out into the courtyard after he denied him twice and he left the main body and goes and hides in the hallway of the large court. I never knew the man. Those are the last words. Matthew is tough. He's the toughest of all of them about wanting to press the point. We do not put our trust in princes and the sons of men. It is solely in the teaching, the instruction, which you have here in the first few verses of First Kings 2 that David gives to Solomon. That's the focal point. Solomon is going to be a disaster. I want people to get the message starting with myself, of course. No one is good, but God alone. Do not imagine otherwise. It is the only corrective to our egos. It's a slippery slope that as you see catches up on David, blesses and then curses. Blesses, instructs, and then says, Now here's my revenge list, go and finish and do away with those people who had wronged me and I did not have time to address it and seek my revenge, which was personal, had nothing to do with the commandments of God.
Hollie Benton 20:43
Well, thank you, Father. I won't thank you for the good conversation because not even our conversations are good. It's the commandments of the Lord, right.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 20:53
Hollie Benton 20:55
Thank you so much, Father.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Leave a Reply.