Sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 5:1-10
Did you hear it? It might be one of the most jarring phrases in the whole of the biblical story: “attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” David hates—hates—the lame and the blind, and so in your conquest to take the city, kill them. The architects of the Revised Common Lectionary actually lost their nerve when they set out the reading for this Sunday, as they would have had us omit the verses that speak of David’s hatred, but I’ve opted to put them back in. Yes, it made for some uncomfortable reading—who wants to hear that in church?—yet it is actually really crucial to an understanding of the larger biblical story.
To listen to the story press play:
A good deal has taken place between where we left off last Sunday and where this episode picks up. Last Sunday we had a picture of David’s ascent, from unknown shepherd to a key leader in King Saul’s army. We were given a glimpse at how David’s success as a leader had begun to threaten Saul, and we also saw the birth of the great and binding friendship between David and Saul’s son Jonathan. From there the story spins forward fairly quickly. Saul becomes so threatened by David that he plots to have him killed, and it is Jonathan who alerts David and helps him to escape. Forced to live by his wits, David gathers around himself a group of followers, and they actually wind up serving as mercenary soldiers in the army of the Philistines… the Philistines, of all people. There’s a bit of romance tossed into the mix, as well as a good deal of intrigue and adventure; all the while, David is so clearly the hero, the one in whom the reader is to delight. Saul, meanwhile, has become more and more unhinged; more desperate to see David killed, more desperate to hold on to power. In one key episode Saul even goes to a spiritual medium, and has her summon up the spirit of Samuel from the dead so he can seek his advice. As Walter Brueggmann observes, in doing this Saul acts “against the religion of Samuel, against the prohibition of Deuteronomy, against his own royal edict. His decision to seek help from a medium is a measure of his moral exhaustion, his despairing faith, his failed life.”
Soon Saul and his son Jonathan will both lie dead on the battlefield, and the way is opened for David to move from renegade adventurer to king. As a youth he had been secretly anointed by Samuel as the true king of Israel, and now he can lay claim to that role. The tribal league of Israel had been battered and broken during Saul’s decline, and now David skillfully draws it back together, and solidifying the tribes as one unified nation. That is precisely where our reading picks up this evening.
Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, ‘Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.’
Saul might have been king, but it was you, David, who was the true leader. And the Lord has said, David, that “it is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” Here Brueggemann comments that, “The term ‘shepherd’ is a conventional metaphor in the ancient world for king, indicating the responsibility of the king to guard, feed, nurture, and protect the flock… With the use of this metaphor, we are now able to see how the entire narrative of David’s rise is staged from shepherd boy to shepherd king.” This is sheer delight for the storyteller, the public anointing of David as shepherd king. There is just so much promise in this David; such fresh possibility for Israel. Though from the beginning the prophet Samuel had warned the people about kings—had advised them that that they really didn’t want a king, for kings inevitably end up serving their own wants and needs—at this moment it looks as if they’ve got a true king. They’ve got a shepherd.
Yet right away by relating the story of the conquest of Jerusalem, the storyteller will unveil something about David; something unsettling, that should serve to remind us that for all his promise, he is still very much fallible. “The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land.” The great city that we so associate with Israel is not yet an Israelite city, you see. It is a stronghold of the Jebusites, and David rightly recognizes its potential as the stronghold centre for his newly unified nation. The city is so well positioned and so well fortified, that the Jebusites aren’t particularly fussed when they see David’s army approaching. In fact, they’re quite content to mock his aspirations: “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”; with these strong walls, we don’t even have to use real soldiers to defend ourselves… the blind and the lame will do quite nicely, thank you very much.
Yet David was evidently aware of the city’s one point of vulnerability; the water supply system. Here comes that jarring statement: “David had said on that day, ‘Whoever wishes to strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.’ And they do, and they take the city, occupying it and naming it the city of David. As if it wasn’t enough that David sets his soldiers loose on the most vulnerable of people, the text adds one more cutting line: “Therefore it is said, ‘The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.’” Whether that originally meant David’s royal house, or David’s city itself, or perhaps even the temple that his son Solomon will later build, is unclear. Certainly later generations read it in terms of the temple; the temple would not be a place for those who were anything less than able-bodied. And tangled into that prohibition was an assumption that blindness or lameness were signs of God’s disfavour and judgment.
I believe that what the storyteller is doing here is intentionally pulling back the curtain to show us a side of David that had not been anticipated. Not that he has been entirely pure and virtuous to this point. He was a mercenary soldier, who had survived by his wits and played pretty rough. Yet it is one thing to tell the story of how this great military leader had taken captured the city of Jerusalem; it is another thing altogether to reveal how he was motivated by hatred. There is now a chink showing in the armour of the golden boy… consider yourselves warned.
There’s a story told in the gospels, one that I suspect most of you will know. Here’s the version from the Gospel according to Mark:
As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David’—you caught that very specific reference?—‘Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” (Mark 10:46-52)
It is Jesus, one called Son of David and held up as an heir and fulfillment of all of the hope and promise that David had once embodied, who meets Bartimaeus, not with judgment or hatred, but with compassion and healing. Though the crowd has been dismissive of the blind man’s cry—“Many sternly ordered him to be quiet”—Jesus met him in his need. A son of David, yet more than David himself could ever be. As Matthew tells us, “The blind and the lame came to Jesus in the temple”—the very place from which they’d once been barred—“and he cured them.” (Matt. 21:14)
But you know, there is one more episode in the ancient story that shows a tempering of David’s hateful judgment. His great friend Jonathan had been survived by a son, a young named Mephibosheth; the royal grandson of the disgraced King Saul. Now Mephibosheth was lame—“crippled in both feet,” the text says—and yet David reached out to him and welcomed him into his own household, where he “ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons.” (2 Samuel 9:1-13) Mephibosheth was treated like one of David’s own sons; treated with respect and dignity and even compassion. In this we see again how it is that David—in spite of his fallibility—might be called “a man after God’s own heart.”