This is a working draft of a sermon which I decided not to use. Comments are welcome!
In the version of the Revised Common Lectionary used by our church, the Hebrew Bible readings in this summer have been working their way through the story of King David, the greatest hero of Israel’s history. We are told that he united the twelve tribes, established the capital in Jerusalem, and expanded the boundaries of the kingdom. He may have written many (certainly not all) of the psalms. Although the kingdom would only remain united until the reign of his grandson, he became the prototype of a great King. His symbol – the star of David – is the most important symbol of the modern state of Israel.
We have more information about his life and career than almost any other figure in the Hebrew Scriptures, taking up half of 1 Samuel and all of 2 Samuel.
In the lesson for Aug. 5 (2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a), we read of the pivotal moment in David’s reign, when the triumphs of his early reign start to turn to troubles for David and his family. Nathan’s accusation of David refers directly to the events recounted in last Sunday’s lesson, so it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves of that story.
Read that passage (2 Samuel 11:1-15) in full, or in brief: David was at home with his army away waging battle. He saw Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, bathing, and sent for her. When she became pregnant, he tried to cover up his involvement by bringing Uriah home, intending that he will go to his wife. Uriah did not do so, due to soldierly scruples, so David then sent him back to the war, directing that he be sent into the heaviest fighting where he will be killed. The verses between the two passages tell how Uriah died, and Bathsheba became David’s wife.
It’s not a pretty story, is it? He has committed the sins of adultery and murder, both of which carry the death penalty. When the people of Israel had demanded a king (1 Samuel 8:4-22), they told Samuel they wanted a King to lead them, so that they could be like the peoples around them. Samuel said they would get a King, but they wouldn’t like it. In this story, David has done some of the things which Samuel warned a king would do. (He’s dead by this point in the story, so he can’t say “Told you so!”)
Samuel’s prophetic role in David’s early career was taken over by Nathan the prophet, who would eventually anoint David’s son Solomon as King. He acted in a positive way earlier to tell David that he would not build a house for God, but that God would make of David “a house,” his dynasty. Now Nathan comes to challenge him, not by directly accusing him of his sins, but by telling him a story of rich man stealing a poor man’s ewe lamb. David was righteously angry, demanding death for the rich man. Nathan’s response turns David’s anger back at him.
David indeed deserved death for his sins. But God was merciful to him. Even though great troubles will come to David and his family, he will be spared the ultimate penalty.
David’s confession perhaps comes a bit too late, but it does reveal a man who understands that his power is limited, coming not from him, but from God, to whom he is ultimately accountable. He became King of Israel because God chose him. God had “unchosen” Saul, and he could just as easily do the same for David.
David wasn’t perfect – far from it, as we have seen – but he understood his place in the scheme of things. His power wasn’t absolute, and when he acted as if it was, he was forcibly reminded of how things should be. Absolute rulers have been quite common in human history. Perhaps the most incisive commentary on them is Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
King or Emperor, President for Life or Fuehrer – whatever we call such people, Shelley reminds us that their legacy will not last.
What saved David from the trash-heap of history was not his military prowess or his administrative genius. Rather, what kept him on the throne to become the progenitor of a long dynasty was his recognition that he served something greater than himself. Even if he didn’t always act that way, he understood that he served the people of Israel under God’s Law. He had a conscience and a moral compass, and when the chips were down, he placed himself under God’s judgment.
Our Canadian history of constitutional monarchy, going back through British history at least as far as 1215 (Magna Carta), is one of placing increasing limits on our rulers. No-one is above the law, just as David understood himself to be subject to God’s law. Leadership is an issue today, when the trend in many parts of the world is away from democracy to a more authoritarian model.
The story of David is an object-lesson in the limits of leadership, from which we can continue to learn in today’s troubled world. It applies wherever people are given power over other people: in business, in government, and even in the church. Leaders in all places need to keep aware that they are there not simply to serve their own needs and desires, but rather to serve others.
At one time I was considering writing a book of advice for young clergy. I was going to title it “It’s Not About You.” Much of what I might have written (and still might) would apply not just to clergy (although that’s what I know best), but I believe to leadership in other areas.