A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 14 August 2016 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor.
(II Samuel 23.1-5; Matthew 22.41-46)
One tricky thing about our Scriptures is that they are old documents, and to look at them as we do, two or three thousand years after their writing, is often to be perplexed by the strangeness of their circumstances, the difficulty of knowing to what they refer, the problem to disentangling what was recorded of purely current importance at the time from what has enduring importance. There's an example of this difficulty in that gospel passage: as he went round his homeland, Jesus got into arguments with other religious groups. One of these was the Pharisees – a group which faded relatively soon afterwards. In one of those disputes he uses an argument from their common Jewish history and scriptures: why does King David call the Messiah (who is yet to come) his Lord, because then the Messiah can't be a descendent of David? Well, the Pharisees were perplexed – but the argument doesn't do much for us.
However, it's not that ephemeral argument so much as the reference Jesus makes to David which interests me here. Whatever divides them, both he and his then opponents hold in common the understanding that David wrote the Psalms, and that he did so 'by the Spirit' of God. This is symptomatic of the exalted status David has in the Scriptures, and right through to today's Jewish and Christian traditions. The flag of modern Israel centres on what is known as the star of David; the story of David and Goliath is one of the staples of Sunday schools and assemblies; throughout the books of Old and New Testaments you can find references to him which are along the lines of the description in today's reading from 2 Samuel: 'the man whom God exalted.... the favourite of the Strong one of Israel' – the man, in other words, whom God loved and made king over his people, and who acted as spokesman for God. Besides all this, of course, he was the one who founded a royal dynasty in Jerusalem, a dynasty that lasted hundreds of years before being crushed by a foreign power; the one who created that high point in Israelite autonomy and self-respect, the golden age to which the Jewish people have looked back nostalgically ever since.
But you don't have to look hard at the Scriptures to see other perspectives on David. It is clear that he was a kind of warlord who allied himself for a time with the newly established kinglet from one of the other Israelite tribes – King Saul. But then, as is the way with warlords, that alliance broke down and David allied himself with Saul's (and Israel's) enemies, the Philistines. When Saul was killed, David seized his kingdom, and promptly slaughtered all of Saul's descendents, except one too disabled to be a threat. As king, he unified all the Israelite tribes, and expanded his realm by various conquests, including that of the city of Jerusalem, where he built himself a palace, but didn't get round to building a temple for his God. His actions a ruler of his newly united kingdom don't always get a glowing press: we are told he caused a census to be taken of his people. This was no doubt analogous with King William the Conqueror's Domesday book of his realms in England – he wanted to know exactly what the wealth of his conquered country was so that he could tax it effectively. David's census gets a really bad report in the books of Samuel and Chronicles, where God inflicts a punishment on the people (not on David, whose fault this is) for holding it. He behaves in ways all too familiar among men in powerful positions: seeing a woman he fancies, he decides to exercise droit de seigneur over her, even though she is married to one of his most loyal commanders. Following this rape of Bathsheba, he gets her husband Uriah bumped off.
His own family proved profoundly dysfunctional. Having many wives and concubines, he had lots of potential heirs and provided much room for squabbles and political manoeuvring. Various of his children raped and murdered one another, and revolted against their father; David ended his reign as a feeble and broken man, and left his kingdom to the mercies of a coup orchestrated on behalf of her son, Solomon. The dynastic line that was thus established wasn't exactly an unmitigated triumph: Solomon's reign had its glories, but was followed by the collapse of the united kingdom which David had established, and a run of kings in Jerusalem who get derided in the scriptures for not reigning as God wanted them to – so an overriding theme of much of the Old Testament is that the reason God punished Israel was because of the disobedience of its kings to the will of God. One might comment that their pattern of disobedience, and of God's consequent punishment of the people, was set by their illustrious ancestor David.
All of that negative reporting of David is right there in our Scriptures, and it sits alongside the highly favourable descriptions of him with which we tend to be more familiar. The favourable picture is so strong for a number of reasons. David was a winner, and winners tend to get a good press – in my lifetime lots of nice things were said about even pretty ghastly characters like Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and Ceaucescu of Romania, when they were still successful. David established a lasting kingdom, enabling a disorderly group of tribes to focus around a common life and identity. And his reign, long in the past even by the time his last heir was deposed by the Babylonians, and lost in antiquity by the time of Jesus, had a golden age, heroic quality which contrasted with the crushed and depressed nature of so much of the subsequent history of his people.
But finally, the position of David has been secured because, following him, the religion of his people and the kingship of his dynasty were inextricably bound together – religion and politics were conjoined twins. Power, with all its rawness, its frequent ugliness and horrors, mingled with the things of God. I don't have any answers to the dilemmas of the ways faith and power mingle together in our own time; I simply point out that they cannot be separated, and never can. When Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem by the crowds on Palm Sunday, Matthew tells us they cheered him as the ‘Son of David’. Less than a week later a combination of worldly and religious authority had him executed.
Way back in the supposed heroic days of David and afterwards, those who spoke for God were prepared to endorse and anoint this rather horrible man. And we must be fair to those who seek and wield power. But some were also prepared to be honest with power and its abuse; we must follow the example of the rare prophet who was prepared to see David as he was, and to condemn in his very hearing the things he did which offended. Politics and power, though often and easily abused, are not in themselves beyond the purposes of God, and are capable of undergoing his redemption.