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The Politics of Scripture

Putting Politicians in their Place

This Advent, we are in desperate need of both prophetic voices and prophetic imaginations. Voices to put our politicians in their place and imaginations to help us recognize the shape of God’s hesed in the midst of personal and global trauma.

7:1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ 3Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’

4 But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ 8Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. 14I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.

2 Sam 7:1–16

Like ice from a windshield, once we scrape away the frosty buildup of Christmas culture, with its benign and (seemingly) apolitical themes of family, peace, and consumeristic gratification, even the casual observer can recognize that the historical advent of Jesus was a thoroughly political event. Jesus entered a charged context, in which the pressure exerted on his people by the power of empire neared its breaking point. As the Gospel of Luke remembers it, the material circumstances of Jesus’ birth were manipulated by the enforcement of a Roman census—the usual precursor to severe taxation and conscripted labor. And the Gospel of Matthew portrays even Herod, the king of the Jews, taking a personal (and paranoid) interest in the birth of the peasant whose appearance magnetically drew celestial signs and international diplomats with their tributes. The advent of Jesus Christ is inescapably political.

In this vein, the Christian lectionary takes us to an overtly political text for the first reading on the 4th Sunday of Advent this year. In 2 Samuel 7, we drop in on king David at the height of his political and military success. His enemies have been suppressed and his legitimacy as sole Israelite monarch is secure. Like the journalists who prompt our athletic champs, the narrator wants to ask David: “Now that you’ve made it here, what are you going to do next?” But David is not going to Disney World. David is ready to build.

It was common for ascendant rulers in the ancient world to follow their early successes by erecting monuments of various sorts—victory stela, city fortifications, temples. Such building projects “made a name” for the king by commemorating their victories and demonstrating their consolidated power via a conspicuous display of wealth and infrastructural coordination. In David’s case, his desire was to build a luxurious house for God. The reader is left to read between the lines to discern David’s motivations. Does his itch to build spring from genuine gratitude to God for supporting his success thus far? Or is it a move to permanently cement the union between the king and the divine in the eyes of the people? Or is it a means to put God in his debt, in order to ensure an enduring reign? Perhaps (as is usual with human motivations) it is a mixture of them all.

In any case, when David drops a hint of his plans to Nathan the prophet, he is encouraged to “go ahead and do whatever you want—God is behind you” (verse 3). With his knee-jerk affirmation, Nathan reminds me of many modern political sycophants we could name—holding office ostensibly to advise or give oversight to the chief executive, but functionally operating as a yes-person, laying a veneer of decorum over the autocratic inclinations of the executive. And this could have been one of those stories. But the text signals a shift at verse 4 (with the characteristic Hebrew tire-screech: vayehi, “But it happened . . .”). God was unwilling to be left out of these deliberations, and promptly sends Nathan back to the king with a retraction.

God wants this to be clear: David has not made a name for himself, and will not be permitted to build a temple as a testament to his accomplishments. Rather, God has made a name for David (verse 9). The language of the oracle emphasizes David’s impotence without God’s aid. He is merely God’s servant (verses 5 and 8; Hebrew: ‘eved, “slave,” perhaps “vassal”). With a searing double entendre, God reminds David of his inauspicious origins: he was plucked from the back of one flock (his peasant father’s sheep) and placed by God in front of another (God’s people). Therefore, David will not build a house for God—who has never complained about his tent dwelling anyway (verses 6–7). Instead, God will build a house (i.e., a dynasty) for David (verse 11). This oracle is meant to put David in his place. He must always remain in God’s debt, rather than achieving the reverse through a royal, religious building project.

At the same time, an eternal dynasty is no small gift to a vassal! As a historical aside, it is fascinating that the only extrabiblical witness to David that we have unearthed to date is a ninth-century BCE Aramaic stele (a victory stele from a rival kingdom), which refers to the Judahite monarchy as “the house of David” (Aramaic: bytdwd). Of course, such a find has no bearing on the historicity of the scene depicted in 2 Samuel 7. But it is a concurring witness that the Judahite dynasty was known more than a century after David’s time, in the Bible and beyond it, as “the house of David.” With such a dynastic offer on the negotiating table, David—who is idealized in the biblical story despite his prominent flaws—happily defers his building plans and takes the divine upbraiding in stride, offering an eloquent response filled with deferential humility and gratitude (verses 18–29). In its context as Jewish Scripture, this story affirms the divine investment in the line of David, but also the perpetual dependence of the Davidic monarchy on God’s gracious favor(itism). It is a text that puts kings in their place.

But this week, 2 Samuel 7 has been recycled in an explicitly Christian context, as an Advent reading. Surely, the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary wanted to emphasize the straight line of analogy drawn by the New Testament from David to Jesus. In the Gospels, Jesus appears as the long-lost heir to the throne, disguised in common garb (like Strider the ranger in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings). Though he was born in a stable, Jesus is pictured as the one whose throne will be secured forever (verse 13), the one whom God will treat as a son (verse 14). As a Christian, I affirm this interpretation and encourage us to explore its political implications. If Jesus is the king who acts not only as God’s vassal, but as God’s son in the world, then his model of social justice, care for the marginalized, and nonviolent confrontation of corrupt powers should guide our own political movement through the world, and the causes toward which we invest our influence.

This interpretation does not, however, exhaust the political relevance of this pericope. After all, its connection to Jesus is only secondary, by way of analogy—an analogy that breaks down in the second half of verse 14. At that point, Nathan’s oracle takes an unexpected turn, with a prophecy (whether truly anticipatory or ex eventu) that when David’s heir strays, God will strike him with “a human club, and human beatings.” When David’s heirs forget their place as God’s dependents, they should expect military consequences. The authors of the New Testament would not have applied this part of the prophecy to Jesus, but other royal “sons of God” may have resembled the portrait.

During Advent, I can’t help but think of Herod the Great in this context. Though he was not of David’s lineage, he fits the description of a king of the Jews who was obsessed with making a name for himself, especially through extravagant building projects. Indeed, he did make a name for himself—the same name conferred upon David in our text: gadol, “Great” (verse 9). Among other projects, Herod the gadol was responsible for “remodeling” (to put it mildly) the Jerusalem temple and its courts, making it one of the most impressive structures in the ancient world. Yet his monumental temple stood for less than a century, its completed complex for only a few years, before being demolished by the “human club” of Rome’s armies, along with his other great edifices. The oracle of 2 Samuel 7 remains a warning to political leaders who seek to make names for themselves, in our own day as much as David’s or Jesus’s.

The oracle is not all warning, though. It also contains hope and promise. Despite such severe discipline, God’s loyalty (Hebrew: hesed) will never be revoked, and the “throne” of David will always be held in reserve for a worthy descendent (verses 15–16). Certainly, this text was treasured (and possibly composed) during the sixth-century BCE Babylonian exile, when the Davidic kings had been deposed, many Jews had been forcibly displaced, and the people suffered under the weight of an intolerant empire. In the middle of such deep distress, Nathan’s oracle holds out hope. It was a hope that was fulfilled—for a time—in Zerubbabel, who led returnees home from exile in 538 BCE. It was the hope that was met again, for the first generation of Christians, in the birth of Jesus. And for Christians today, each year when we celebrate Advent, we reaffirm our trust in God’s hesed, that God will come through with loyalty in spite of our present distresses.

For most of us, 2020 has delivered a uniquely challenging Advent season. Instead of the easy and care-free celebrations to which we have become accustomed, this December finds us clinging to an uneasy hope in light of a painful present and an uncertain future. The world has lost more than 1.5 million lives to the COVID-19 pandemic—a loss worthy of jeremiad lamentation—along with staggering economic hardship, the brunt of which has been borne by those who already suffer marginalization. In many nations, including my own, the political power-holders to whom we have looked for guidance and leadership have been too preoccupied with making names for themselves to contribute meaningfully to the work of saving lives and confronting the injustices exposed by the pandemic. This Advent, we desperately need prophetic voices to put politicians in their place—as servants and not name-makers. But we also need the prophetic imagination that is able to help us all recognize the shape of God’s hesed in the middle of this global and personal trauma; a prophetic imagination that directs our praises, guides our laments, and clarifies our calling as we seek to collaborate with God’s liberating vision of hope.

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