Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Bring on the Philistines

“Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, ‘Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the Lord said to you, “You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.” ’ ”

A little Bible history may remind us what a mealy-mouthed, disingenuous endorsement this really is. At this point, David has been ruling as king over Judah in Hebron for a full 7-1/2 years, while the tribes of Israel now buttering him up have been engaged in bitter civil war against him, with Ish-bosheth son of Saul as their chosen king and the tribe of Benjamin as the power behind the throne.

Unfortunately both Ish-bosheth and his powerful and popular general Abner are now dead. They won’t be governing anyone or delivering them from their enemies.

Thankless Shepherding

So at this very convenient moment, when the house of Saul is at its weakest and the house of David at its strongest, when Israel has been on the losing side of their most recent engagement by a body count factor of 18:1, when treasonous subordinates have murdered their own king, and when no other realistic option exists, well ... that’s the time the tribes of Israel decide that David is really a pretty good guy after all.

“Behold, we are your bone and flesh” ... if you don’t mind overlooking the glaringly obvious fact that we were just trying to kill you.

Thanks gents. That’s wonderful. Oh, and you also just now happened to remember that it was the Lord himself who said, “You shall be prince over Israel”? So it’s actually the Lord you’ve been fighting all this time ...

Hmm. Would you want to try to shepherd these clowns? I sure wouldn’t.

The Work of an Elder

Leadership is not always a good time. In fact, most of the time it’s a ton of responsibility, and no end of headaches. To be a good shepherd is to bite your tongue, suck it up, take the fake compliments and play the hand the Lord has dealt you. And that’s what David did.

When I look at the difficulty churches are having these days in finding qualified men willing to take on the work of an elder, I am profoundly unsurprised. We are living in a time period in which men and women, more than at any time in recent memory, are living and acting in the most atomized possible way, as individuals giving little or no consideration to the consequences of their own actions and the impact these actions have on other Christians. We have “body life” with no concept of the Body, affiliation without loyalty, and membership without commitment. Every man and woman does what is right in their own eyes. I don’t mean it’s all evil, of course, but that it’s always their version, their interpretation, their opinion and their choice. Nobody else really enters into it.

Would you want to shepherd people like that? The question answers itself.

Reasons to be Atomized

Perhaps this excessive individualism is a by-product of a techno-culture that allows us to pick and choose every aspect of our news, music and entertainment for ourselves. It is not uncommon today to find a family of four in four different rooms of an evening, staring at four different screens. Maybe consumerism has become so ingrained in us that we can’t conceive of the church as anything more than yet another institutional entity flogging a product which we can choose when and how to consume ... or when not to.

Individualistic thinking is certainly not mitigated by years of meals grabbed from fast food places on the fly, or sandwiches slammed together in haste on a person-by-person basis on the way out the door. A family that doesn’t eat together regularly has little sense of its identity as a collective, or of the special nature of each of its inter-relationships. After all, the whole cannot be greater than the sum of its parts if you never bother to put those parts together. And if we have never learned to operate as functioning, contributing members of a genetically-related family, how can we understand what it means to be part of the family of God?

Or maybe we are so individualistic because we work for companies that outsource work to other countries, lay off employees here, there and everywhere, and prize share values over people. It is all but impossible to be anything but self-interested in the workforce these days. Your company doesn’t love you, and it has no loyalty to you whatsoever. Why would you define yourself on the basis of what you currently do for a living and who you do it with? Most of us are as close to unemployment as the next dip in the Dow Jones. No sense of shared mission or corporate identity to be found there.

Maybe we are obsessively self-interested because the media we absorb, mostly uncritically, endlessly promotes self-actualization, self-improvement, self-help and generalized self-centeredness. The only shared identity promoted today is that of fellow citizens of the “global village”, which is about as abstract an identity as can possibly be conceptualized. You’d get a more identifiable sense of meaning and purpose from a Jackson Pollock painting.

A Constructive Divine Purpose

Maybe it’s all the above, or something else entirely. Whatever the reasons, it’s no easier to manage people who don’t see themselves as members of a single body than it was for David to manage twelve extended families whose tribalism, hunger for power and status, and obsession with historical grievances far outweighed any sense of national or religious identity David might have been able to foster.

It kind of makes me wonder whether God didn’t deliberately nudge other nations into conflict with Israel during David’s reign with the intention of teaching Israel to fight together against a common enemy rather than squabbling interminably with one another. Never before or afterward in Israel’s history did so many enemies step up to try their armies against the people of God within such a short period. It’s very possible the many unasked-for conflicts with the Philistines recorded in the books of Samuel represent more than God’s richly-deserved retribution for Israel’s many sins; there may well have been a constructive divine purpose at work too. And it wasn’t just the Philistines; it was Amalek, Ammon, Edom, Zobah, Moab and even Syria.

Perhaps the solution for our churches is something similar. I wonder if a little serious persecution might not be just the ticket to instill in us a stronger sense of our corporate identity; a better grasp of who we — by which I mean we, the church — really are in Christ, and what it is we are here for: not to consume, experience or self-actualize as individuals, but to serve, worship and grow together.

Hey, bring on those Philistines.

Photo of Jackson Pollock’s studio floor courtesy Rhododendrites [CC BY-SA 4.0]

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