Sunday, November 24, 2019

Grace to the Undeserving

“May the Lord be with you, as he has been with my father.”

Jonathan, son of Israel’s first king, said these words to David, who would become Israel’s second king. If you know the story, it may initially appear he was laying on the irony so thick it required a backhoe, or at least a team of oxen. His father Saul had a history we might optimistically describe as checkered: initially anointed and blessed by God, but characterized by rebellion and self-will. Told that he was to be rejected from being king, he fought God all the way.

He never seemed to realize he was fighting a losing battle. That tells you everything you need to know about Saul.

The Inevitable Consequences of Sin

While God explicitly proclaims the inevitable effects of sin on the sinner, it is often the case that the full magnitude of the tab is not immediately apparent. God told Adam, “In the day that you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall surely die,” yet Adam did not experience literal death immediately. Instead, he lived on for hundreds of years watching the effects of what he had brought into the world, first on himself and on his wife, then on his family, and then on the whole family of mankind. By the time he experienced death for himself, it would not surprise me if he found himself acutely grateful for the grace extended to him in that he was not compelled to live on indefinitely amidst the ruins of a fallen creation for which he was primarily responsible.

God took the same tack with Saul. Through the prophet Samuel he told him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.” But like Adam, the effects of what Saul had done “this day” would take a long time to become fully apparent. Saul ruled Israel for close to forty years. In that time, many things happened, both good and bad. Judicially, his kingdom was as good as gone the moment Saul rebelled against God. But in the real world, he was obliged to watch it slip away from him inch by inch.

In those intervening years, how he chose to play the hand he had been dealt was very much up to him.

Bad Things and Good Things

It is certain some very bad things happened to Saul. First, the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him. It would be presumptuous to assume we know all that entailed, but what Saul experienced was definitely more profound than a pall of gloom or even clinical depression. Saul did crazy, dangerous things when the harmful spirit was upon him. Then it became apparent to him that the man God had chosen to replace him was right there in his own court. That must have stung something fierce. And yet it was only in David’s presence that he experienced relief from the harmful spirit.

However, though bad things did happen to Saul, it would be difficult to make the argument that he stopped enjoying every benefit God provided from the moment he sinned. The effects of his rebellion were not immediately apparent to the people he governed. They were obviously not apparent to his son. He won great victories over the Philistines. The women of Israel sang, “Saul has struck down his thousands.” His own designated successor chose to spare his life on multiple occasions; few monarchs in Israel or elsewhere ever benefited from that sort of restraint on the part of their rivals. He enjoyed the loyalty of his men up until the very end of his life (possibly because all the most powerful ones were close relatives), notwithstanding his mercurial personality and uneven governance. And the Israelites profited materially from his kingship and mourned him in his passing, as David himself conceded.

“He Has Been With My Father”

So, as odd as it may seem, when Jonathan said to David, “May the Lord be with you, as he has been with my father,” I very much doubt he said it tongue in cheek, or ironically, or even just to be polite. I also doubt Jonathan was thinking only of the victories his father had won prior to his rejection by God. Many years had passed since then. Samuel announced God’s judgment on Saul, but he did not go out of his way to dishonor him publicly. If Saul was disgraced in the eyes of the people, it was his own doing.

No, I think Jonathan was blessing David in the most powerful way he knew, by acknowledging God’s grace to his father despite the fact that Saul was, for the most part, a flawed, rebellious, insecure, jealous and unpredictable man. Saul’s life, believe it or not, could have been a great deal worse.

God is gracious to the undeserving, and even to the very undeserving. I don’t know about you, but I find comfort in that.

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