David's Last Words

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This Christmas I heard some decent cracker jokes. For example:

Q. How can you tell if Father Christmas has been in your garden shed?
A. You have three extra hoes.

Q. Why was Santa's little helper depressed?
A. He had low elf-esteem.

But there were also more topical ones, like…

Q. Why was Theresa May sacked from running the nativity play?
A. She couldn't provide stable government.

And criticising governments like that is a universal pastime, isn't it – because governments and rulers are so imperfect. Just think of Donald Trump, or the Iranian regime, or Mugabe and his successor. And there are two big problems when it comes to governments and rulers. One is when they do what's wrong (like practising corruption) or promote what's wrong (like easy divorce). That's the problem of bad rule. But the other problem is when they promote what's right (like driving slowly in town) – but we don't want to do it. And that's the problem of bad subjects.

Well tonight's Bible passage is all about the government of Jesus – in other words, what it's like to have him as our ruler, and how he solves both problems of bad rule and bad subjects. So would you turn in the Bibles to 2 Samuel 23, where we pick up our new sermon series from last week. And look down to 2 Samuel 23.1:

"Now these are the last words of David:"

So go back through history 2,000 years from today and you get to Jesus' first coming – to die for our forgiveness on the cross, and then to rise again and return to heaven, to rule with his Father. But go back another 1,000 years before that and you get to David. So look again at verse 1:

"Now these are the last words of David:
The oracle of David, the son of Jesse,
the oracle of the man who was raised on high [that means, raised to the throne],
the anointed of the God of Jacob, [that means chosen by God to be king]
the sweet psalmist of Israel:"

So that's a reminder that God had made David king of the kingdom of Israel. And the idea was for that kingdom to be a kind of visual aid pointing forward to Jesus and the kind of kingdom he would one day bring in. But David wasn't just a king. He was also a prophet – which means God spoke his future plans to David for David to speak them to his people. So in Acts chapter 2.30-31 it says:

"Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, David foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ"

So that's saying: David spoke about Jesus 1,000 years before Jesus. And he did that in many of his Psalms – and also here in his official last words, which we're going to look at using three questions. And the first is:

1. How do we know this is about Jesus?

Well, look down to verses 1-4:

"Now these are the last words of David:
The oracle [in other words, message from God] of David, the son of Jesse,
the oracle of the man who was raised on high,
the anointed of the God of Jacob,
the sweet psalmist of Israel:
"The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me;
his word is on my tongue.
The God of Israel has spoken;
the Rock of Israel has said to me:
When one rules justly over men,
ruling in the fear of God,
he dawns on them like the morning light…"

Now the commentaries say that verse 3 is hard to translate because literally it says this:

"The God of Israel has spoken;
the Rock of Israel has said to me:
Ruler over mankind – a righteous one!
Ruler – in the fear of God!"

But this translation (the ESV) makes the second half of that verse into a kind of general principle:

"When one rules justly over men,
ruling in the fear of God…"

…that's good news for the people being ruled over. But actually, it makes more sense to take this as an announcement of a coming ruler. It's as if David is saying,

"A Ruler over mankind – a righteous one… is coming!
A Ruler – in the fear of God… is on his way!"

And straight away, you sense that this coming ruler is on a completely different level from David. Because he'll be over all mankind – whereas David was only ruler over Israel. And he'll be righteous – which couldn't always, or ever absolutely, be said of David. So already I'm thinking, 'Is this talking about Jesus?' But then skip on to verse 5 and David gives his reason for believing that this ruler is coming. He says:

"For does not my house stand so with God?
For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
ordered in all things and secure."

So David is saying, 'The reason I believe in this coming ruler is the covenant (or promise) that God has made with me and my house' – in other words, his dynasty, his line of successors. And that's a reference back to the most important verses in 2 Samuel. So please turn back to chapter 7 and verse 12. And along with God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 12.1-3, this is the most important promise in the Bible. In fact, it expands on the promise to Abraham – it's one promise in two stages. So in 2 Samuel 7.12, here's what God promised David once he was king:

"When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers [in other words, die], I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom."

Which, so far, could just be talking about his immediate successor Solomon. Read on, verse 13:

"He shall build a house for my name [in other words, build the temple – which Solomon did], and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever."

And that word 'forever' makes this promise begin to sound much bigger – because to establish a kingdom forever, either you need a succession of kings that goes on forever, or one of the successors ultimately has to live forever. So now read on in verses 14-16, where God says to David and his successors:

"I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity [as David and all his merely human successors did], I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me. Your throne shall be established for ever."

And, like I said, for that to happen, either you need option 1 – a succession of kings that goes on forever, or option 2 – one of the successors ultimately has to live forever. And the rest of the events of the Bible show that God had that second option in mind. Because David's successors were a mixture of, on the one hand, faithful but sinful (like himself), and, on the other hand, faithless and disastrous. And the faithlessness got to the point where God acted in judgement and allowed Israel to be invaded and exiled, so the kingdom of Israel and its line of kings was brought to an end… which begged the question: 'So what about that 2 Samuel 7 promise? What has happened to it?'

And the answer is: it 'went underground'. It's a bit like the Metro if you get on at Regent Centre going south – and it suddenly goes underground here at Jesmond, only to re-surface over the river. In a similar way, from the exile to the first coming of Jesus, it's as if the 2 Samuel 7 promise 'went underground'. Because it was no longer visibly being kept in a continuing line of kings. But it was still travelling towards its ultimate fulfilment – in Jesus. That's why the angel Gabriel said to Mary (in Luke 1.31-33):

"you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

So although Jesus wasn't produced by the line of David – he was God's Son become man through a virgin – he was born into that line to fulfil the 2 Samuel 7 promise. And he then died so that we could be forgiven back into relationship with him as King. And he then rose again and returned to heaven – where he is, now, that ultimate successor to David who lives and rules forever.

So now turn back to 2 Samuel 23. All of that is why this passage is about Jesus and his government. Now that might seem a bit theoretical and unapplied so far, but we need to see that this is about Jesus. And it gets much more applied from now – because the rest is all about what kind of ruler Jesus is and what it's like to live under his rule.

So you might just be looking into Christianity and thinking, 'What would it be like to commit myself to Jesus and living his way?' And this passage has some answers to that. Or if you're a Christian already, when the world around us so often sees living for Jesus as bad news, you need reminding that having him as our ruler is actually very good news indeed. And this passage does that, too. So, second question:

2. What kind of ruler is Jesus?

Well, look on the screens at that literal translation of verse 3:

"The God of Israel has spoken;
the Rock of Israel has said to me:
Ruler over mankind – a righteous one!
Ruler – in the fear of God!"

So first up, Jesus is universal ruler – the rightful ruler over all mankind. So for everyone you meet tomorrow – whatever nationality or culture or religious background (Muslim, Buddhist, secular atheist, you name it) – you can say to yourself, 'Jesus is their rightful ruler and it's an affront to his honour if they're not living for him.' And that's our top reason for sharing the gospel with people. It's not that Jesus will meet their needs or make their lives better (especially beyond death) – although that's true. It's that Jesus is their rightful Lord and they should be living for him.

But then verse 3 says: Jesus is a righteous ruler – uncompromisingly committed to doing what's right – and that he rules in the fear of God – in other words his will is entirely one with God's. And from our New Testament vantage point, we know that this isn't talking about a merely human king whose will is one with God's. This is talking about God the Son whose nature is one with God the Father – which is why his will is entirely one with his Father's and can't possibly be otherwise.

So what kind of ruler is Jesus? Not just a universal ruler but an uncompromisingly righteous ruler, which you see when you read about Jesus in the Gospels. You see it in his own uncompromising obedience to his Father – where no temptation of Satan or man, and no fear of suffering or pain, caused him to deviate at all from going to the cross for us. And you see it in his call to us to uncompromising obedience to his Father as well – for example, in the 'sermon on the mount' where Jesus says repeatedly, 'You have heard it said… But I say to you.' For example, Matthew 5.43-45:

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven."

So you can picture God's Old Testament commands as like the bar in the high jump in athletics. And merely human, sinful teachers had lowered the bar – to make obedience easier, to make the law more convenient. So they'd said, 'Look, God can't have meant 'Love every neighbour equally'. After all, some have forfeited your love by the way they've treated you, haven't they?' And Jesus said, 'But I say to you… love them all, even your worst enemy. And pray for them' – even when they're crucifying you.

We're so used to unrighteous rulers, aren't we? And unrighteous rulers can't bring about righteousness, because where they've compromised they're unable to confront the sin of others, and simply drag people down to their level. Whereas Jesus is uniquely, uncompromisingly righteous. And he calls us up to uncompromising obedience to his Father, as well. So in the 'sermon on the mount' Jesus ends up by saying in Matthew 5.48:

"You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

And he knows that this side of heaven we can't be and won't be perfect. But he also knows that the only way to bring about the process of change in us is to call us up to nothing less than his Father's perfect will – because you won't get better at the high jump with the bar set at 1 metre. And he knows we'll fail. But he also knows that the solution to that is not for him to lower the bar, but for him to forgive us our falling short whenever we need it – which he can do because he paid for all the forgiveness we'll ever need on the cross. So it's people who don't understand and believe in his forgiveness who want to lower the bar – to try to solve the problem of falling short. But if you know Jesus' forgiveness for you, you can live with the bar where he puts it, knowing that when you fail, you're still loved and always will be.

So there's the problem of bad rule solved in Jesus. And then last question for this passage:

3. What's it like to live under Jesus' rule?

Well, look down to verse 4. When this ruler comes, David says,

"he dawns on them like the morning light,
like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,
like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth."

So there are two pictures there of how good it is to live under Jesus' rule. The first is the picture of dawn breaking – dispelling the darkness and ushering in a wonderful, cloudless day. And the Bible does see living without Jesus – in other words, without true knowledge of God – as being in the dark about what's truly right and wrong and best for us and bad for us. It's not saying that anyone living without Jesus has no morality – everyone has a morality. What it's saying is that they have no ultimate reason for believing it's right, or for keeping to it. And Nick Hornby's novel 'How to be Good' is a brilliant description of that. It's about a doctor called Katie who's married, but having an affair, and thinking of divorce. And she consults the local vicar – and the conversation goes like this:

[Katie:] 'Tell me what to do...'
'Have you tried counselling?'
'I'm not talking about counselling. I'm talking about what's right and wrong. You know about that surely?... Just tell me. Stay or go.' (I'm sick of not knowing.)
'Dr Carr, I can't tell you what to do.'
'Well I'm sorry, that's not good enough… Why are you people so timid? It's no wonder the churches are empty when you can't answer the simplest questions. Don't you get it? That's what we want. Answers. If we wanted woolly minded nonsense we'd stay at home. In our own heads.'

Well, she does decide to stay in the marriage. And in the last page of the book, the family is having supper when water starts pouring in from an overflowing gutter. So they all rush upstairs and her husband David leans out of a window to try to unblock it. And she's holding on to him and the two children are holding on to her. And this is how it ends (Katie narrating):

"My family, I think to myself. And then, I can do this. I can live this life. I can, I can. It's a spark I want to cherish, a splutter of life in the flat battery; but just at the wrong moment, I catch a glimpse of the night sky behind David, and I can see that there's nothing out there at all."

Which is a parable of her beliefs – because there's nothing outside her own head saying she ought to stay; and there's no-one but herself to keep herself to her decision. And the Bible says: that's where we are without Jesus: in moral and spiritual darkness.

But verse 4 says when you recognise who Jesus is, it's like dawn breaking and ushering in a wonderful day, because you have his ultimate authority for believing what's right and wrong and best for us and bad for us. And he makes sense of life like nothing else does – so that C.S Lewis famously said:

"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
(From the paper, Is Theology Poetry?)

Well look back to the end of verse 4 for the other picture of how good it is to live under Jesus' rule. David says it's…

"like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth."

And that picture is taken up by prophets after David – like Isaiah, who promised that one day (through Jesus) God would pour out his Spirit on people like rain on dry ground – so as to create faith and obedience in hearts that would otherwise never have responded to him. And the Bible says that, by nature, we're all spiritually dry ground, unable to produce any response to God by ourselves. So this is great news, because it's saying that Jesus isn't just a ruler who calls us to obedience. He's a ruler who can enable that obedience in us. Because when we ask him to forgive us and be our King, he comes into our lives by his Spirit, and motivates us to live for him. And if you're a Christian – unless you can't really remember a time when you weren't – you'll know what I'm talking about. You'll know what it was like to be someone who didn't want Jesus as your ruler – who maybe thought that was bad news, that it would take away your freedom and spoil your fun. But now you do want Jesus as your ruler. Why? Because by the work of his Spirit in your heart, he's made you realise what he did for you on the cross – and his love brought home to your heart has created your love for him.

That solves the problem of bad subjects, doesn't it? Because once you get who this ruler Jesus is, and what he's done for you, it makes you want to live for him like you never did before. Not perfectly – or anywhere near, this side of heaven. But genuinely, differently.

So those are David's two pictures in verse 4 of what it will be like to live under Jesus' rule, when he comes. But, unlike us, David didn't see that there would be two comings of Jesus, with the period where we live in between. But from our New Testament vantage point, we do see that. So the last thing to say about living under Jesus' rule is that it's a now-but-not-yet experience. So if you're a Christian, you are now living in the light of knowing Jesus. But it's only a pool of light in a world that's still very dark with sin. It's a horrible place, really, the more you see of it and think about it. And only when Jesus comes again will the dawn break on a new creation completely free of sin, which is the point of verses 6 and 7:

"But worthless men are all like thorns that are thrown away,
for they cannot be taken with the hand;
but the man who touches them
arms himself with iron and the shaft of a spear,
and they are utterly consumed with fire."

In other words, those who won't be forgiven and changed won't ultimately be part of his kingdom – because you can't be part of a kingdom if you won't accept the king. You'd spoil it – just like thorns spoil a pleasure garden.

And the other now-but-not-yet thing to say is that if you're a Christian, you do now experience God's Spirit making you want to live for Jesus and turn from sin. But as the New Testament says, that's only the 'firstfruits' of the Spirit, only a foretaste of his complete work. And it's only beyond this life, when God brings you through death, that he'll fully get all the sin out of you, - so that when you finally meet the perfect ruler face to face, you'll finally be able to be the perfect subject.

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