Sunday, January 05, 2020

Semi-Random Musings (18)

There are no wasted words in scripture. At least, I’m not having much luck finding any.

The apostle John says that if everything Jesus did were written down, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Sanctified hyperbole? Maybe. But what is certain is that we’d need tractor trailers to carry our Bibles to church and bigger doors on our buildings. Much bigger. Add a few more unnecessary details to our Old Testaments, and we’d have to leave them at home. Except of course that our homes would not be big enough, and we couldn’t afford to own all the volumes.

The Holy Spirit is not just the world’s greatest-ever writer, he is also the world’s greatest-ever editor. We get exactly what we need and no more. No detail is frivolous.

An example: Abishag the Shunammite. The first four verses of 1 Kings are all about Abishag. She basically served as King David’s pre-electricity electric blanket in his old age. As is so often the case with people of advanced years, try as he might, David could never get warm. So his servants found him a beautiful young virgin to lie in his arms. The writer pointedly adds, “the king knew her not.” The issue was not sex but body heat. David was apparently past all that.

But the first-time reader quite rightly says, “Huh? What’s the point of that?” It seems like an irrelevant, quirky detail, as it does in verse 15 of the same chapter when the writer of Kings notes that Abishag was attending David when his wife Bathsheba came to see him about an attempted coup being plotted by his son Adonijah.

Why? Who cares? What does Abishag’s presence have to do with anything? There are literally thousands of times in scripture that characters speak to one another without the writer noting the names of others who were present at the time. Why this one? We know nothing about Abishag’s character or personality, she contributes exactly nothing to the exchange between David and Bathsheba, and we will never be told the ending to her personal story. She is a non-entity, utterly beside the point.

But as they say, “Wait one.” Or in this case, wait until one chapter later, when Adonijah asks his brother Solomon for Abishag’s hand in marriage by way of manipulating Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, and gets himself summarily dispatched for his effrontery, one of three significant royal executions that, along with the expulsion of Abiathar from the priesthood, serves to establish King Solomon’s throne.

So that’s what the first four verses of 1 Kings are about. Abishag looks like an irrelevancy, but she is actually the maguffin in a very important episode of Israelite political intrigue. Sure, Abishag’s “story arc” is interrupted by the accounts of Adonijah’s attempt to become king, Solomon’s anointing and David’s death, but it resolves itself unobtrusively and with no little significance some way down the road, as do so many of the seemingly irrelevant details we find in our Bibles.

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Speaking of David, one obvious purpose of the books of Samuel and Kings is to serve as a useful caution to all who may desire the responsibility of leading God’s people.

If we were to assess the significance of Bible characters by wordcount, few would match David. Technically, his story begins in Ruth, then spans from 1 Samuel 16 through 1 Kings 2, a staggering 42 chapters. On top of that, he wrote at least 50% of the psalms in the third-longest book in the Bible, and is mentioned 58 times by the writers of the New Testament, which arguably ranks him behind only Abraham and Moses in that department.

Like many of us, David’s life flip-flops between shining example and cautionary tale. A forty-year reign, unprecedented conquests of Israel’s enemies, reuniting a divided kingdom, bringing the ark into Jerusalem, almost complete consistency in his devotion to his God, making preparations for Solomon’s temple, and a tendency toward unusual, gracious and often Christ-like displays of loyalty and love toward his enemies. These all stack up on David’s plus side. On the other hand, his adultery with Bathsheba, his betrayal and murder of Uriah, his numbering of the fighting men of Israel, his awful track record as a father and husband, and his chronic inability to keep his most trusted lieutenants under control serve to blemish his memory.

In other words, he’s portrayed as a believable, flawed human being who succumbed less frequently to the temptations offered by incredible power and authority than almost any other monarch about whom we have significant information.

But if David’s reign over Israel serves as any kind of primer for aspiring leaders in the church, its lessons are hardly encouraging ones. The politics, plots and shenanigans during David’s reign are non-stop. From his time on the run and seven-year wait to become king of Israel as well as Judah, we learn that God’s purposes for leaders may involve a lot of hard learning before we get to serve publicly. From Absalom’s, Sheba’s and Adonijah’s rebellions, we learn that even religious people are remarkably fickle, and that when you are top dog, someone always wants your job. From Ahithophel and Abiathar we learn that even one’s most trusted aides and co-workers may decide to stab you in the back at any time. From the Benjaminites, we learn that there are often those among the people of God who are self-serving and bear such intense grudges that they may never be placated. From the Gibeonite debacle, we learn that the sins of the past may come back to bite you, even when you personally had nothing to do with them. From Joab, we learn that when you give orders they will rarely be followed to the letter, and certainly never in the spirit they are intended. From the Bathsheba episode, we learn that even the best men can take a serious tumble off their pedestals. Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. From the numbering of the fighting men, we learn that one unusually bad idea can hurt an awful lot of comparatively innocent people.

Don’t get me wrong: there are always faithful, loyal servants like Barzillai, Hushai and Ittai the Gittite to compensate, and there are plenty of perks in being king. Just don’t imagine it’s a walk in the park ... unless the particular park you have in mind is somewhere on the Golan Heights.

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Photo courtesy David Shay [CC BY-SA 3.0].

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