Short straws come to mind – and some straws are much shorter than others! That was my first thought when I was asked to preach on 2 Samuel 8! Though there have been other short straws in this sermon series, it seems to me that chapter 8 is by far the shortest. But it could have been much worse. We could have had a sermon series on the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles. I'm sure you are very familiar with those endless lists of names, and I'm also sure too that if we had preached on them most of you would struggled to keep awake!
Of course some sermons are more sleep inducing than others! I can think of an occasion when a sermon was preached and one member of the congregation was in a deep sleep. Can you guess who that might have been? No, I'm not talking about Jonathan Redfearn, but about a sermon that was preached in 1753. And the sleeper wasn't a member of the congregation, but it was the preacher himself who was asleep. Apparently he announced the hymns, pitched the note, preached a six-point sermon and gave out the notices. He even rebuked an intruder. And in recording the incident, John Wesley asked 'by what principles of philosophy can we account for this?' What indeed, we might ask? (Journal, 25 May 1753). But just to assure you tonight, I am fully awake and I trust that you will stay awake with me!
Another obvious challenge tonight is to be preaching on the Old Testament when today is Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday when another king was in Jerusalem and the Lord gave him a greater victory than any victory ever won by king David. So bear with me tonight as we look together at an obscure and far from easy chapter in the Old Testament, and at the same time as we begin to prepare ourselves to mark holy week – and follow through the sequence of Palm Sunday – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day.
And perhaps it is that very sequence that is part of the clue to the narrative. We need to look at scripture sequentially as we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament; from shadow to reality, from what is obscure to what is clear. From a people who longed for a Messiah to the fulfilment of that hope and expectation in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. From the imperfect king David to the perfect king Jesus. From a sinful man like each one of us. To the sinless Son of God. Today David's bones lie in his tomb in Jerusalem, but we who believe in Jesus echo the words of the angels, 'He is not here, he is risen' (Lk. 24:6). Unlike the tomb of David, the tomb of Jesus is empty. The Son of David – 'great David's greater son' – he is our king – who rules and reigns for ever.
So as I speak tonight, try and make some of these connections in your mind as we dialogue with God's word, and listen to what the Lord is saying to us. Informing us, encouraging us, moulding us and shaping us. Not just so that we might tick off chapter eight before we move on to chapter nine, but for us to glimpse the hand of the sovereign God in history, and to hear the voice of God in scripture: warming our hearts, challenging our presuppositions and bringing each one of us closer to the Saviour. Certainly so that next Friday and next Sunday, we kneel at the foot of the cross and we stand amazed as we peer into the empty tomb. And echo the words: 'He is not here, he is risen'.
1. David's Victories
To help you with the geography of the Bible, remember that the Holy Land is about the same size as Wales. 3,000 years ago Israel was surrounded by hostile nations. Nations that did not worship the Lord. Nations that followed the gods of their own creation. Nations who were deaf to the words of the prophets. And some of these other nations are listed here – on the coast, the Philistines (the long-standing enemies of God's people) (v.1); the Moabites, the peoples to the south-east (v.2); and the Syrians to the north (v.5). And we read in v.12 that David defeated these nations 'Edom and Moab, the Ammonites and the Philistines'. The godless (then as now) surround the people of God. Seeking to undermine and destroy the faith we profess. But how do we face up to godless opposition and the sin that threatens to engulf us? To stand up or to lie down? To stand firm or to compromise?
The editor of 2 Samuel added a note that 'the Lord gave victory to David wherever he went' (vv.6, 14). Was that an exaggerated comment from the court spin-doctor? Or the reflection of a man of God who had an insight into what was happening as David consolidated his own position and drew the nation together as one? It was certainly something of a miracle that he was able to do so. The Bible makes it clear that David subdued the surrounding nations. Why was that? Because he was powerful? No. It was because God was with him. God ordered his way. God gave him the victory over his enemies. This brought relative peace and security to the people and the fulfilment of prophesies concerning the promised land. Some of the surrounding nations would be subdued, while others would submit of their own accord. We learn that David put garrisons of soldiers throughout Syria to the north (v.6) and Edom to the south (v.14), and that those peoples became subject to David's earthly rule and subject to the divine rule of his God. Consider how it is that the Lord places each one of us to be as lights in a dark place, as an aroma of Christ among those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:15). To live for him among the ungodly as salt and light.
But this consolidation came at a great price. Two out of every three Moabite soldiers were killed, and measured with the undertaker's tape. Without much difficulty we can all do the sums - 22,000 Syrians (v.5) and 18,000 Edomites were killed (v.13). And whether those numbers were rounded up or down that was a great slaughter of those peoples. It was not an understatement to say that 'David made a name for himself' (v.13) and became the ruler of a not inconsiderable territory. There is much blood and guts in the Old Testament that is pretty gruesome and offensive to us, but this sort of slaughter was not untypical of the nations at that time. And on TV we are not unaware of mass killings that take place today.
I said earlier on that we need to dialogue with the text and tonight part of that dialogue with God's word should include issues concerning our attitude to war and the politics of war. Is there ever such a thing as a just war? Can pacifism be justified? Thank God, peace and reconciliation can be the outcome of war. From the ruins of Coventry (a city that was literally 'coventrated' by aerial bombing) emerged the centre that is committed to the ministry of reconciliation. Whatever your views on these matters Christians ought to be peacemakers rather than warmongers. Yes, it's always hard to jump from the world of the Old Testament to the world of today, but as we read the text we should look for biblical principles and guidance for the lives we live and for the actions we take. Why is this? Because we are each accountable to the Lord.
2. The Spoils of War
As well as the deaths there was also the pillage. And the victories brought the spoils of war. Some of the trophies were freely given (vv.6, 10) and some were plundered (vv.7-8, 12).
The Syrians brought tribute (v.6). And from Hadadazer the golden shields of the officers and also quantities of bronze were brought to Jerusalem (vv.7-8). And from Joram came articles of silver and gold and bronze (v.10). And what happened to all these treasures? The answer is given in v.11 that 'King David dedicated [these things to the Lord'. So these treasures – the silver and the gold and the bronze were not taken for personal gain, to make David rich and powerful, to evoke jealousy from his subjects, but these spoils of war were dedicated to the Lord. Set apart for the Lord's service. Resources to be used for the building of the Temple.
We know that David consolidated his position by making Jerusalem, the city of David, his capital. From now on the tribal confederacy became one nation, under God. A place in which to encounter the divine focused on the Ark of the Covenant. A place in which worship and sacrifice could take place. Today you can see the site of the small city of David immediately to the south of the Temple area. Jerusalem was a tiny city about the size of Palace Green in Durham between the cathedral and the castle. David's city was constructed on a great deal of infilling – called the Millo (2 Sam. 5:9) – which was necessary in order to create a level place on which the city stood. There David built his palace, and we know that it was his intention to erect a temple nearby. But this was not to be, for we read that 'God said, "You may not build a house for my name, for you are a man of war and have shed blood ... it is Solomon your son who shall build my house and my courts, for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father' (1 Ch. 28:3, 6).
In his sermon on 2 Samuel 8, John Calvin remarked, 'Although David did not build the Temple, yet he made the first preparations so that Solomon would find everything ready.' Preparing the way for what was to come. In building the sacred place where the Jews could meet with their God in worship through sacrifice. Preparing the way for the coming of Jesus who died and who rose again very near to the site of the Temple.
I referred just now to our sequential reading of scripture. That certainly applies here. The warrior king David was followed by his peace-loving son king Solomon. The Davidic dynasty may have ended with the Exile, but a 1,000 years later than David, David's greater Son would come and rule and reign and in his death he removed the need for temple and priests and sacrifice, for his death brought life and peace, forgiveness and hope to those who believe and trust in him.
Looking back we can often see how God has led us to this point in our lives; and faith believes that he will lead us forward into the future, as we trust in him, and believe that he is in control of our lives and circumstances. Remember, that in all things – past, present and future – God is sovereign. God is in control. God equips us for his service.
3. David's Character
If you think about it, David was a strange mixture wasn't he? A man of God who had feet of clay. He was (like you and me) a sinner. He knew that he was not as he should be. Like us he was fallible and weak, a mass of contradictions. A Jekyll and Hyde figure. Sometimes alone and afraid and vulnerable. And consider. He was a poet, a musician, a faithful friend, a lover, a warrior, a politician and a king. Engaged in ruling the nation, fighting as a warrior and yet still able to maintain a close walk with his God. And something of his inner devotional life and commitment as a believer comes across in those Psalms that are attributed to him. In our busy, tail-chasing lives we have many responsibilities and duties – to family, to work, to home life - shopping, cooking, washing and cleaning. Too often we fail to prioritise our time with the Lord and then feel terribly guilty because we so easily ignore him and forget him. If that is you could I encourage you to read and to meditate upon the Psalms and to make their words, your words, and the substance of your confession and prayers and praises.
One of the Psalms summarises David's life and character like this: '[The Lord] chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance. With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skilful hand.' (Ps. 78:71-72). In the Old Testament we read of David, the good shepherd, and in the New Testament of Jesus, the good shepherd. Who loved us so much that he became man, and was like us in every way (yet without sin) and became sin for us, and reconciled us to God through the shedding of his blood on the cross. And beyond the cross was the testimony of the empty tomb.
And what does v.15 say of David? 'David reigned over all Israel. And David administered justice and equity to all his people.' He cared for his people just like one of the Judges of old. And how did David rule the nation? By careful administration and responsible delegation. Clearly he could not do everything himself. So he placed appropriately qualified people to be responsible for the army, the church and the civil service. Of them the recorder (v.16) was an important individual. He was the chronicler of sacred history. The lessons of the past were written down to inform later generations. And God's word active in what we call the Old Testament and the New Testament still speaks to us today. That's why we need to understand the broad sweep of biblical history including a book like 2 Sam. Including a hard chapter like this one.
And notice in v.18 that some of David's sons became his advisors (and not priests as it says in the text). In the parallel passage in
1 Chronicles 18:17 it describes David's sons as 'the chief officials in the service of the king.' Priest-making was not in the gift of the king, and it would have been an abomination for him to have made them priests. What it means is that David saw to it that his family were instructed in God's word. Which is a reminder and a challenge to those who are parents to lead their children to the Lord by word and example.
And by way of conclusion and quoting from John Calvin on this passage, he said:
'Now let us prostrate ourselves before the majesty of our good God in recognition of the faults and offences of which we are guilty. Let us pray to him, and ask pardon for them, and that we may learn so to dedicate ourselves to him...'
May that be so for each one of us today and especially as we prepare this week for Good Friday and Easter Day! For Christ has died and Christ is risen!