Clearing Ground: David

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on February 21, 2016)

Have you thought much about what you want your last words to be?

I’ve thought about making a will, and about doing financial planning. I’ve thought about what I’d like to be remembered for. But I’m not sure I’ve thought much about the literal words I would like to be saying on my death bed. I suppose I’d like to be wise, and funny, and poignant, and encouraging.

Petty and vindictive are not, however, what I would like to aim for.

In the bible, King David is one of those figures who stands so tall. He’s a man after God’s own heart. He’s the boy who killed Goliath and protected his sheep from a lion. He’s the one who faithfully served Saul even when he was treated poorly, the last born, overlooked son who was anointed king and who established a kingdom out of the nomad people Israel.

His faults are on full display-his use of power to get the woman he lusts after, and then his arranging of the murder of her husband. Not one, but two sons rebel and try to make themselves king in his place. But he seems able to admit his faults and confess. He is credited with writing the beautiful Psalm 51, an honest confession of wrong.

I’m left with the impression that while David obviously had thorns growing in his life, things he needed to confess and change, it seems he also dealt with them appropriately, with trust in God and with honesty. So it is a bit surprising to read what David actually says on his death bed, because it is not a pretty picture at all.

Turn with me to 1 Kings 2.

Rebellious son Absalom has tried to take the throne and is dead. Next in line Adonijah tried to raise support and do the same thing, but David has acted and made Bathsheba’s son Solomon king, which causes Adonijah and his followers run for their lives.

Now on his deathbed, David has a chance to give his final charge of wisdom to Solomon. He starts strong: 1 Kings 2:1-4.

When the time drew near for David to die, he gave a charge to Solomon his son.
‘I am about to go the way of all the earth,’ he said. ‘So be strong, act like a man, and observe what the LORD your God requires:Walk in obedience to him, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and regulations, as written in the Law of Moses. Do this so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go and that the LORD may keep his promise to me:’ If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel. (1 Kings 2:1-4, TNIV)

But then things start to go off the rails a bit. David has some grudges and some scores to settle. Joab has been his General with many ups and downs for decades, saving David’s life and kingship multiple times, but also acting recklessly and rebelliously many times as well.

When I read this in a moment, you should know that the one incident David names about Joab occurred 35 years earlier! A long history of nursing a grudge seems to be indicated here.

And then you will hear about Shimei. In one of David’s worst moments, when it seemed he’d lost his kingdom to his son Absalom and he’s fleeing for his life, Shimei from one of the northern tribes of Israel came out and publicly cursed and ridiculed David. This, too, David has not forgotten. Listen to David’s words at the end of his life, the literal last words recorded from him in the bible.

‘Now you yourself know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me–what he did to the two commanders of Israel’s armies, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether. He killed them, shedding their blood in peacetime as if in battle, and with that blood he stained the belt around his waist and the sandals on his feet. Deal with him according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace.
‘ But show kindness to the sons of Barzillai of Gilead and let them be among those who eat at your table. They stood by me when I fled from your brother Absalom.
‘And remember, you have with you Shimei son of Gera, the Benjamite from Bahurim, who called down bitter curses on me the day I went to Mahanaim. When he came down to meet me at the Jordan, I swore to him by the LORD:’ I will not put you to death by the sword. ‘ But now, do not consider him innocent. You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood. (1 Kings 2:5-9, TNIV)

For all of the ways David modeled a beautiful relationship with God, for all the times he did the right thing, asked forgiveness, and showed grace to those who had hurt him…when it came to the end of his life, we see the thorn of unforgiveness choking him.

Our theme for this season of Lent is clearing the ground in our lives, removing the thorns that choke out the seed God wants to plant and grow in us. What can we learn from David? What can we learn about the danger of the thorn of unforgiveness? That’s what I want us to explore today.

Because the evidence is, this consumed David. Simon DeVries, in one commentary I read this week, wrote this:

Certainly we will be dismayed to read that David’s last recorded act was one of revenge. David has been much flattered in biblical and extrabiblical portraits of him, but vv. 1-9 show him as petty and scheming. He debases the exalted word “wisdom” in the way he lays it on his son, advising him to use deceit and cleverness to achieve his vengeful aims.

I don’t want to pretend that forgiveness is an easy thing. It is not. It is some of the most difficult work that we do, to work through and acknowledge the painful and hurtful and wrong things done to us, and find a way to release the person from the consequences of their wrong actions. Forgiveness is not easy. It’s a journey and it can take time.

But what’s clear is that unforgiveness brings damage as well, damage in this case to David himself, as he’s consumed by thoughts of revenge on his death bed, and for the kingdom he’s turning over to Solomon as well.

Today, we will do the difficult work of trying to see where unforgiveness is growing unchecked in our lives.

Why is it? What can be done? What things contribute to not being able to complete the work of forgiveness?

We’ll sing again the chorus from “Lord, Reign in Me.” Imagine, as you sing it, how David’s last words might have been different had he taken the words of this song to heart…if he had been able with God’s help to find true and lasting forgiveness. [SING]

The difficult thing in focusing on unforgiveness is trying to come up with practical examples that are safe to use…

If I moved around more as a pastor, I could tell you juicy stories about people from other places, but I’ve been rooted in Newberg too long! But maybe what we can do is brainstorm together what unforgiveness leads to. What are some of the dangers of nursing our wounds and grudges, of refusing to forgive? What comes to your mind as some of the dangers of unforgiveness? [ASK]

Thank you. I don’t think it is possible to get through life without being hurt and wounded by the actions of others, without having someone do something to you that is wrong and hurtful. This is something we all must face. All of us need to figure out how we will deal with the wounds others give us. That list we’ve just created together shows the harm and the hurt that can come from not dealing with those hurts effectively, from letting them build up and fester and lead to bitterness, from letting them stay in our lives until they continue to hurt us and the relationships around us.

Jesus showed us that the best permanent way of dealing with wounds and wrongs is forgiveness rather than revenge. This is what we are moving toward at Easter, Jesus bringing us all forgiveness by his death and resurrection. Forgiveness for our sins and wrongs is something we easily want to experience. Extending that forgiveness to others…that is not as easy.

Nor should it be easy, in fact. One of the things I’ve long thought is that our Christian circles often push us too quickly toward forgiveness, so quickly that we aren’t able to truly work through the essential pieces of forgiveness. We can end up with a kind of forgiving that is based on what we should do, or based on what we think it will achieve for us. That’s one piece I want to explore when we look more carefully at the back story with Shimei.

Other times, the reason we hold on to unforgiveness is that we really don’t trust that it will work in this life. We refuse to forgive, because we need to ensure our own sense of control and power. This is what we’ll see as we look at Joab’s history with David.

My hope and my prayer today is that as we each look at these examples from David’s life, the Holy Spirit will open our eyes to places where we might be holding on to unforgiveness, where it is hurting ourselves and those around us, choking out the good work God wants to do in us.

Let’s start with Joab, who actually is David’s nephew.

This must be just a quick sketch of his life, as Joab actually shows up quite a lot in the bible. Joab is David’s General who is like the super talented person on the team, the one better than anyone else, but who is a cancer in the locker room. Joab is like the talented vice president you hire, but you never know if he’s going to try and oust you from your position and take over, or whether he’s going to take a job with your company’s arch rival.

We meet Joab in the second chapter of 2 Samuel, when David is fighting one of Saul’s sons for the kingship of Israel and Judah. Joab’s army wins a key battle. The opposing general is Abner, and the bad blood between Joab and Abner begins when Abner kills Joab’s brother who had chased Abner for miles.

Not long after, Abner switches sides and makes a deal with David to help David defeat Saul’s son. When Joab hears of this, he is furious…probably in part because Abner has killed his brother, but perhaps also because Joab sees Abner as a threat to his own position as David’s General. So Joab takes matters into his own hands and treacherously kills Abner through deceit.

This is the first rift in David’s relationship with Joab, and evidently it’s the one that held on the longest. Even though it was 35 years before, this is the incident David mentions on his death bed, the reason given for why Solomon is told, “you’re a wise man. You’ll know to take care of Joab.”

But David through his long life still used Joab whenever it was helpful to him.

Joab is the one David orders to cover up his sin with Bathsheeba by killing her husband Uriah. Joab is the one who sticks with David for four years of exile when David’s son Absalom usurps the throne, and Joab is the one who restores David to his throne by killing Absalom himself.

But even this causes a rift with David, who hadn’t wanted his son killed. Joab was the cutthroat pragmatist who didn’t care about this fatherly love; he eliminated the political threat that Absalom would always be if he lived. So David removes Joab and makes another man the head of his army.

This may be what leads Joab to turn his back on David and his chosen successor Solomon and put his power behind David’s son Adonijah right before David lies on his death bed. It’s clear that Joab and David’s relationship has always been complicated, and without a doubt Joab would be a threat to the stability of the kingdom David is leaving to Solomon.

So David’s vindictive words at the end of his life are an unforgiveness born out of need to try and control and consolidate power for Solomon, and why he makes his desire perfectly clear: “Deal with him according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace.”

For all of David’s talk about his trust in God to keep the promise, the promise that David and his family will always be on the throne of Israel, David certainly takes matters into his own hands. What’s particularly appalling is how this all is manipulated to try and preserve the good legacy of both David and Solomon. David ends up looking like he was gracious by not killing his enemies himself, but Solomon gets the excuse of consolidating his own power but being able to blame it on his dad’s wishes.

Forgiveness requires going all in, trusting that God will do what is right.

In David’s case, he’s not able to forgive and trust, because he’s had a lifetime of watching Joab be untrustworthy. I’m reminded of how difficult it is to walk the way of forgiveness, how difficult it is to live according to what Jesus taught in the sermon on the mount about turning the other cheek; how difficult it is to trust, as Romans reminds us, that vengeance is God’s prerogative, not ours.

Shepherd boy David trusted God deeply, and watched God’s hand on his life bring about amazing things. With Joab, we see the thorns of unforgiveness, control, and desire for power choke out that trust…leading to deathbed scheming, unforgiveness, and murder.

What about this Shimei son of Gera?

When David’s son Absalom takes over the throne and tries to kill David, David has to escape and run for his life. He has a few men loyal to him, but for the most part the people have turned against him. 2 Samuel describes a time when he is approaching a town in what will eventually become the northern kingdom of Israel in the divided kingdom after Solomon. In some ways, you see the seeds of the division of the kingdom happening right here with Shimei and David. Listen to the story that David proves he is unable to forgive.

As King David approached Bahurim, a man from the same clan as Saul’s family came out from there. His name was Shimei son of Gera, and he cursed as he came out. He pelted David and all the king’s officials with stones, though all the troops and the special guard were on David’s right and left. As he cursed, Shimei said, ‘Get out, get out, you murderer, you scoundrel! The LORD has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The LORD has given the kingdom into the hands of your son Absalom. You have come to ruin because you are a murderer!’
Then Abishai son of Zeruiah said to the king, ‘Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and cut off his head.’
But the king said, ‘What does this have to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? If he is cursing because the LORD said to him,’ Curse David, ‘who can ask,’ Why do you do this? ”
David then said to Abishai and all his officials, ‘My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the LORD has told him to. It may be that the LORD will look upon my misery and restore to me his covenant blessing instead of his curse today.’
So David and his men continued along the road while Shimei was going along the hillside opposite him, cursing as he went and throwing stones at him and showering him with dirt. (2 Samuel 16:5-13, TNIV)

For those of you that have seen the movie Princess Bride, I can’t help but picture Shimei like the woman in Buttercup’s dream. “BOOOOOOO! BOOOOOOOO! Bow down to the Queen of Slime! Bow down to the Queen of Putrescence!”

But notice a few things. First, notice that David looks gracious and forgiving here. He’s being embarrassed in front of everyone, humiliated in public, but he doesn’t take revenge. Second, notice he does the right thing. He rebukes his follower who is sticking up for him, and doesn’t let Shimei be killed.

But really notice this, notice the reason behind David’s right action. Verse 12.

It may be that the LORD will look upon my misery and restore to me his covenant blessing instead of his curse today.

David has a view of God as someone who punishes, as someone you bargain with.

He appears to forgive, he does the right thing…but he does it to try and get something he wants from God. It’s clear things are going horribly and God isn’t supporting David, so he endures the ridicule as if it is coming from God, and he endures it so that God will change and start blessing him instead of cursing.

David’s attempt at forgiveness, his right action, is coming from a selfish place. I might even argue that it isn’t true forgiveness, and his misunderstanding of what forgiveness truly is could be what leads him to his bitter vindictiveness on his death bed.

When have you tried to cover over wrong done to you by a quick sort of forgiveness, a forgiveness that is really designed to make you look good in front of others? In order to get God to reward you for your kindness?

What’s fascinating is you can see how this mistaken understanding continued for David. 

Absalom is killed, David’s asked to return to Jerusalem, and it seems like God has rewarded him. Poor Shimei can see the writing on the wall, and he comes out to eat his humble pie and plead for his life.

When Shimei son of Gera crossed the Jordan, he fell prostrate before the king and said to him, ‘May my lord not hold me guilty. Do not remember how your servant did wrong on the day my lord the king left Jerusalem. May the king put it out of his mind. For I your servant know that I have sinned, but today I have come here as the first of the whole house of Joseph to come down and meet my lord the king.’
Then Abishai son of Zeruiah said, ‘Shouldn’t Shimei be put to death for this? He cursed the LORD’s anointed.’
David replied, ‘What does this have to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? What right do you have to interfere? Should anyone be put to death in Israel today? Don’t I know that today I am king over Israel?’ So the king said to Shimei, ‘You shall not die.’ And the king promised him on oath. (2 Samuel 19:18b-23, TNIV)

You can almost read David’s thoughts. “I was merciful before, and God now is blessing me. What harm is there in promising to show mercy always? God will always have my back now.” But it’s still the same deal-making, do the right thing perspective rather than true forgiveness.

Something breaks it. Something changes before the deathbed. Perhaps having his second son Adonijah rebel a few years later is too much for David. Perhaps it causes him to cynically reject his trust that God takes care of him. He certainly doesn’t learn true forgiveness, but rather from his death bed wants to pay Shimei back, and also try and take away an unsafe element from Solomon’s rule.

His words to Solomon about Shimei are the most harsh. David knows he can’t break his own promise and kill Shimei himself. But he says to Solomon: “You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood.” With stronger language than he talked about Joab, David’s bitterness breaks out of him, leading to Shimei’s death and the beginnings of the rift between Israel and Judah.

We see so clearly in David’s life the terrible consequences of unforgiveness. 

It’s a thorn that chokes out trust in God. All the lessons of trust from David’s early life are erased by bitterness and scheming and broken relationships by the time he lies on his death bed.

The true power of forgiveness is not how it causes God to bless us. It is not how it makes us look good in front of others. The true power of forgiveness is to follow Jesus’ example and experience God’s power of resurrection and redemption that come from releasing others from our rightful vengeance.

It’s a road that requires us to live in the true power of our own experience of being forgiven by God through Christ. It’s often a road that takes time, sometimes time with a counselor or trusted friends, acknowledging the true hurt that has been done to us and slowly releasing it to God, with the Holy Spirit’s help.

But this challenging road of forgiving others as we have been forgiven breaks the power of bitterness, control and scheming that can take us over like it did David.

We need God’s work in our own lives to live into this! Let God’s presence help you see where ground needs to be cleared. We’ll sing and let that lead us into a time of open worship, where God can perhaps lead us to a place of release and forgiveness before it consumes us with bitterness.

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