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Justice and Kindness
Winter Quarter: Justice, Law, History
Unit 1: God Requires Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of December 12, 2021
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: II Samuel 9
Key Scripture (NIV):
“David asked, ‘Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?’”
Cultural and Historical Background
- To understand the historical background of the text.
- To understand the importance of a vow and promise in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
- To understand the threats that weaken promises such as time and rationalization.
- To understand the transcendent power of a promise and vow.
David and his followers engaged in long, costly battles to secure the kingdom of Israel. For years the nation of Israel operated as a theocracy. Israel consisted of a loose federation of the 12 tribes. The Mosaic Law served as their overriding moral code, and their life together was made possible through their belief that they were covenant people. God’s covenant with Abraham not only created a biological family, but a spiritual family as well. However, during the ensuing years the Israelites placed higher value on the biological kinship, often ignoring the spiritual kinship that was intended for the world. When threatened, Israel united to combat the threat and maintain their mostly peaceful coexistence. Israel had not conquered Canaan, they had subdued it. Other tribes remained in the land. The fiercest and strongest of those tribes was the Philistines. Though many battles were fought, the Philistines were never dispelled from the promised land. Israelite judges were those men and women who emerged during times of threat and saved the nation from their enemies. Some judges functioned not only as military generals, but also as prophets. Samuel was one such judge.
However, the people eventually wanted a king. The surrounding nations had kings to oversee their welfare and Israel was becoming a nation of weakened trust. After the Judge was instrumental in saving them, the people often reverted to practices of idolatry. This rebellion created a serious breach of God’s covenant and Israel would suffer the consequences. This repetitive pattern of obedience and disobedience weakened the commitment of Israel to God and one another. Eventually, many thought Israel would prove more stable with a powerful king at the helm. Thus, they chose Saul. Samuel, the last Judge, anointed Saul as king. At this point Israel transitioned from being a loose confederation of tribes to a more centralized state.
Background of Characters
As a teacher and student, it is most helpful to read the entire story of David, Saul, and Jonathan in I Samuel. For our lesson, we will consider the main events and issues related to these three individuals. Saul would eventually struggle as king, making three serious mistakes that would seriously weaken his reign. Before Saul’s reign was complete, David was consecrated to be his successor. The relationship between the three begins formally during an Israeli-Philistine conflict. Goliath, the mighty warrior of the Philistines, stood taunting the Israelite army. In those days a conflict could be settled through the battle of one individual against another. Each army chose its champion, then they would fight. The victor’s army would then receive the victory. As an unusually large man, Goliath and the Philistines were confident regarding the outcome of such a battle. Goliath was such a fearsome and terrifying opponent no Israelite was willing to confront him.
David was sent to check on his brothers and to bring news back to his father Jesse concerning the battle. As a young teen with no training as a warrior, he stood stunned that Israel allowed a pagan warrior to stand unchallenged. No one appeared to even challenge Goliath’s mockery. David volunteered to do battle against Goliath. Prior to the battle David and Saul’s son, Jonathan, forged a friendship. The friendship was birthed through Jonathan’s admiration of David. Jonathan attempted to fit David in his own protective armor, however the suit was too big. Thus, David fought Goliath with only his shepherd’s sling.
David’s defeat of Goliath won him the praise of his people. Chants and songs arose praising David for his courage and triumph. Initially, Saul was grateful for David’s service; however, that gratitude quickly turned to jealousy and paranoia.
Many physicians and therapists assert Saul possessed all the symptoms of bipolar illness. His moods could swiftly change from joy to sadness and from love to hate. David was retained to soothe Saul’s depressive moods with his music. However, Saul would quickly turn from appreciating the music to wanting to destroy David. Jonathan helped David survive such mood swings. However, eventually Saul became so paranoid of David he believed his reign could only continue if David was killed. Thus, the Israelite army began hunting David. David and his followers engaged in several conflicts with Saul and his army.
Even when David faced the certain opportunity to destroy Saul, he refused to “take the throne” as long as Saul was alive. David and Jonathan, Saul’s son, had entered into a covenant of friendship together (I Sam. 24). David honored that covenant and forbid anyone from taking Saul or Jonathan’s life. Upon hearing of Saul’s death, David asked the Amalekite why they would “lift their hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” This question revealed David’s understanding of his promise to Jonathan. David honored Saul and God’s king as long as Saul lived. It is obvious from the story that David did not want to “take the kingdom away” from Saul. He viewed Saul’s death as unnecessary and was heartbroken upon hearing of Saul’s death in battle. David’s grief was compounded upon hearing that Saul’s son Jonathan, David’s dear friend, was also killed.
David eventually solidified the kingdom of Israel. Peace was beginning to settle upon the land. However, in David’s mind and heart, a covenant with another, and the promises of that covenant, were to be acknowledged and obeyed. David struggled to enjoy the privilege of serving God’s people as long as the house of Saul suffered. Approximately 20 years have passed since David was anointed king. Saul and Jonathan were dead. Saul’s house was no threat to David whatsoever.
The Message of Our Text
The Power of the Promise
Our text is related to the important issue of “promise-making.” A person’s word possessed tremendous power in Israel and later in our Judeo-Christian culture. A vow made to God or to another was considered binding. A person’s entire reputation was associated with keeping their promises and word. Few of us would argue that promise-keeping is as important to some as in years past. Some in our current culture adhere to the mantra “contracts are made to be broken.” Freelance writer Chuck Palahniuk sadly captures our culture’s current perception of promises and vows. He writes, “In a world where vows are worthless. Where making a pledge means nothing. Where promises are made to be broken, it would be nice to see words come back into power.”
The Judeo-Christian tradition places high value on words, promises and vows. Genesis intentionally reminds God’s covenant people that the world was spoken into being. The words of God offered in the covenant with Abraham are from the same source that created all things. Thus, they are powerful and binding. In the moving story of Jacob stealing the birthright from Esau, poor Isaac cannot remove the stolen birthright from Jacob for he had already “spoken it.” Vows and promises were unbreakable. In the New Testament, John proclaims that Jesus is the Logos, the word of God made flesh. Thus, Jesus is the unbreakable promise of God’s love and redemption.
David and Jonathan created a covenant and promise of friendship between them (I Samuel 24). That covenant of friendship included the promise not to destroy the house of Saul. David had honored that covenant by choosing not to kill Saul or Jonathan.
What is your thinking upon the value of promises and vows in our culture? What do you believe are the consequences of broken promises? Though all promises are important, what promises and vows do you think are of utmost importance for you and others? What can we do as individuals, and what can the church do to strengthen the power of vows and promises?
The Passing of Time Regarding Promise
Time does possess tremendous power to alter. Time separates us from particular events. This separation can weaken the initial power of the event. Many of us remember the hilarious scene from the old Burt Reynolds movie “The End.” He is drowning at sea when he decides he wants to live. He begins swimming toward shore, promising God all of his possession if he can survive. As he gets nearer the shore the promise changes. The character weakens the promise with each stroke. By the time he stands safely ashore, little is left for God. Many preachers referred to this scene in the years following, for it is quite true to life. Many of us seriously mean the vows and promises we make at the time. However, time provides many the opportunity to “reconsider” our promises. Still, in our Judea/Christian tradition, a promise is never made to reconsider. If we are not serious when we make it, we shouldn’t make it. Naturally, some make promises in desperation, and some of those promises may be almost impossible to fulfill. I have to leave such promises to God. God knows us and understands why we do what we do and say what we say. However, the possibility that such moments exist should in no way weaken our understanding of vows and promises. Each of us took vows to the Church. We promised, as faithful followers of Jesus Christ, that we would give, serve, support, and pray. Time should never be given the power to erode those vows.
Time has passed since David made his promises to Jonathan. David could easily dismiss them since both are dead. Who is going to hold David to account?
What promises can you cite that are too easily weakened through time? What can we do as individuals and together to maintain the power and value of our promises through time? Considering the time frame of almost 20 years since David was made king, how easily do you think it would have been for David to simply forget his promise? What do you think made him consider this promise after all those years? What do David’s actions regarding his promise have to say to us about promises we make years earlier? What do you think we mean when we refer to “the transcendent power of a promise?”
David could have easily let the concern for Saul’s house slide into history. No one lived that threatened David’s throne from Saul’s house. Why should David open the painful past if all was well at the time? Many of us have heard the old adage/question “Why not let a sleeping dog lie?” For David, establishing his promise to Saul’s house was not a potential threat to be avoided. It was a promise to be kept. David initially had no idea how any descendent of Saul’s house might respond. Perhaps they were angry, spiteful, desiring revenge. However, for David, the greater consequence was the failure to keep his word. What would neglecting his word mean for him spiritually? What would it mean for his own serenity? The more we study David and his motivations, we begin to understand why he was known as a “man after God’s heart.”
Some believe David may have been motivated to renew the relationship with Saul’s house in order to “keep his enemies near.” However, a thorough study of the text and context reveals a deeper spiritual motivation for remaining true to Saul’s house.
What do you believe was David’s motivation in seeking a descendant from Saul’s house? Why would David want to revisit a promise he made years earlier? Does the death of Saul and Jonathan have any bearing upon David’s initial promise? If they have no bearing, then why not? Did the death of Saul and Jonathan nullify the promise David had made? What does David’s determination to fulfill his promise say to us about the spiritual obligation we have to keep our word?
Rationalization and the Promise
Not only is time often given the power to weaken a promise, rationalization possesses the same power. David could easily rationalize his promise away. Saul had certainly been unkind toward him. David could even make the case that the covenant of friendship had been broken by Saul, and that the entire covenant could be dissolved. However, for David, even if a covenant was conditional, that is both parts must keep it, he did not understand his part to be conditional at all. Even if Saul attempted to take his life, he refused to take Saul’s. Even if the house of Saul sought to destroy the house of David, David would ensure that the house of Saul lived. If many of us look stringently enough, we can find a reason here and there to nullify the promise. As a pastor, I’ve listened to individuals offer reason after reason as to how the church has let them down. In response, they chose to withdraw from their vow. Certainly, churches can let people down. We are still human. God continues to use frail human beings to reveal his love and redemption to the world. However, my vow was made before God. My vow is not conditioned upon how perfectly others keep their part. I must, as much as possible, perfectly keep my part. David was going to keep his promise, regardless of the behavior of Saul and his house. Many could claim, “It doesn’t seem fair that I keep my word when the other does not!” However, David knew that it was God who established, kept, and maintained justice. He was to leave the issue of fairness to God, instead ensuring he kept his own promise.
Have you neglected promises made because others violated their part? Have you allowed your desire to keep your vows to the church to diminish due to the frailties of the church? Should the successes or the failures of the church have any bearing upon our word? Upon our vow? Since everyone has different needs they want met by the church, what do you think would happen if all neglected their vow each time the church seemed to let them down? What does neglecting our vows in life do to us spiritually? How do broken promises affect our relationships with others? Do we make promises at home? Are these promises as important as all other promises? How do current broken promises affect our children’s understanding of vows and promises?
David was so determined to keep his word that he called a servant from the house of Saul, Ziba, to inform him of any from the house of Saul who might continue to live. His answer reveals why many years had passed with little mention of Saul’s house. Jonathan had a son, Mephibosheth, who had been seriously injured in the attempt to escape during the battle that took his father’s life. Both feet had been permanently damaged, leaving him lame. His physical difficulty would have lowered his stature in the eyes of many. Some would perceive him as useless or even a bother. His family’s house lost the throne, and he could not raise or lead an army in his condition. He was destined to live quietly, eking out a living.
However, for David, he was a member of Saul’s house and thus an important person in relation to David’s promise. David would treat him as he would treat his father, Jonathan. Mephibosheth would dine at the table of the king of Israel, a place where important, special individuals dined for the entirety of his life. The mention of Mephibosheth’s son, Mika, reveals that David’s kindness toward the house of Saul continued beyond Mephibosheth. The house of Mika became a prominent house in Israel.
Do promises effect generations? In what way? What do you think the author of Samuel intended by mentioning the life of Mika?
Transcendent Power of Promise
David knows that his vow to Jonathan, concerning Saul and Jonathan’s family, was made in the presence of God. David well knew that time did not release him from his promise. Even though the two are dead, the spoken promise remained. Imagine how easily David could have dismissed his promise to Jonathan. David is unaware of any from Saul’s house that may still live. Even if some live, they must be far removed from the promise itself by time and circumstance. Still, David is determined to keep his word.
David’s desire to keep this promise reveals again the “transcendent” power the Jewish people ascribed to vows and promises. Thus, there exists no excuse for a person to break their word.
Would we keep our promises and vows if no other person knew? Do we make promises while aware of God’s presence? Do we understand our vows and promises to be made “in the presence of God?” If everyone involved a promise failed us, would we be determined to keep our word regardless? How has God kept his promise to Abraham in Jesus Christ? What promises did God make to us through Christ? What should be our response to God’s promises and faithfulness to those promises?
Almighty God, our hope in ages past and all years to come, we offer thanksgiving for your faithfulness to us. Teach us to number our words and speak them with greatest care. Empower us to be a people of our word, to be a people faithful to our vows. May our lives reflect the presence of your great promise, Jesus, the Logos, within our own hearts. May our own fulfilled promises remind the world of your faithfulness in Christ. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.