Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Lord's Anointed

I recently finished reading 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings (also known as the 4 books of the Kings).

A major theme of the narratives in these texts is obedience. King Saul is ultimately rejected by God because of his disobedience to the word of God as conveyed to him by the prophet Samuel. On the surface, the story of Saul and Samuel looks like a classic power struggle between civil and priestly authority. Samuel tells Saul, "Thus saith the Lord..." Saul does it his own way, and then Samuel essentially excommunicates Saul.

But a different narrative about the complexities of obedience and authority gets played out when David enters the scene. Samuel anoints David king while Saul is still on the throne, potentially setting the scene for a bloody civil war. Based on the way such situations have typically played out in history, one would have expected David to immediately claim the throne and lead an armed rebellion against Saul, who refused to relinquish it. But David does something quite shockingly different...

Instead of letting his anointing go to his head and claiming the throne immediately, David waits. He swears allegiance to Saul, and remains obstinately loyal to him, even when Saul repeatedly tries to have him killed. Not only that, but he continues to serve the king by defending Israel against its enemies (the Philistines), even as he must remain in hiding to avoid being murdered by Saul's loyalists. In doing so, David severely tries the patience (and credulity) of his supporters, who don't understand why he won't claim what is his by divine right. When asked to explain himself, David repeatedly affirms that he will not raise his hand against "the Lord's anointed."

A most dramatic moment occurs when David is in hiding, on the run from Saul's forces. Through a freak coincidence (providence?), Saul takes refuge, undefended by his body guards, in the very cave where David is hiding. While Saul sleeps, David cuts the hem off Saul's robe, but does not harm or disturb Saul. How easy it would have been for him to be done with his enemy then and there. But as he later declared to Saul, he would not lay a finger to "the Lord's anointed." He even apologized for cutting the hem of the king's robe (which he later presented as proof of his loyalty to Saul).

After Saul is finally killed in a battle with the Philistines, David grieves the death of the king -- a man who never stopped trying to have him murdered! David's followers were distressed by his public display of grief for the fallen king, to the point of complaining (with some justification!) that David was making them look like fools for supporting him.

But the narrator of 1 & 2 Kings makes clear that David's reverence for King Saul in his capacity as "the Lord's anointed" was pleasing to God. Because of David's respect for authority that God established -- even an authority that God had putatively rejected -- God prospered and protected David and blessed his reign.

As king, David, of course, also gets into trouble with God, when he commits adultery with Bathsheba and then has her husband Uriah the Hittite murdered to cover up his sin. If there's any moral there, it is perhaps that power corrupts, and that it is very, very difficult for any man with absolute power to be perfectly loyal to God. A truly wise man might pray never to be placed in a position of such power, given how few can resist its temptations (see D&C 121: 34-46 and Mosiah 29: 11-25).

What fascinates me is the curious balance David had to strike in those years between his anointing and his final ascension to the throne. On the one hand, David was a fugitive from the law, considered a rebel and an outlaw. He might have been justified in making full fledged war against Saul. But David recoiled from that. He recognized that there is inherent value in the order that authority provides. It may be that the relative civil peace experienced during David's reign was a by-product of his insistence on respecting even unjust authority. But more importantly, David honored Saul because to honor God's anointed is to honor God, the author of both authority and peace.


Bravone said...

Excellent analysis. Thank you!

Sean said...

I like the story of David and Jonathan. One could argue if there was ever a romance, or at the least "bromance."

J G-W said...

The relationship between David and Jonathan deserves its own post.