NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: 2 SAMUEL 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
USCCB Link to all three readings
When King David was settled in his palace,
and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side,
he said to Nathan the prophet,
"Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent!"
Nathan answered the king,
"Go, do whatever you have in mind,
for the LORD is with you."
But that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said:
"Go, tell my servant David, 'Thus says the LORD:
Should you build me a house to dwell in?'
"It was I who took you from the pasture
and from the care of the flock
to be commander of my people Israel.
I have been with you wherever you went,
and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.
And I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth.
I will fix a place for my people Israel;
I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place
without further disturbance.
Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old,
since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies.
The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever."
In this the fourth and final weekend of Advent and the fourth week of Tuesday blog entries on the Old Testament, you may be forgiven if you began to think that the Sunday Hebrew Scripture text in the Catholic Lectionary was devoted exclusively to the Prophet Isaiah or the three authors who wrote under that name. This weekend we have a dramatic shift to a historic narrative that rivals Homer and the best of ancient literature, the work of an unknown chronicler who is our best source for the life of King David and the emergence of a monarchy in Israel. The two volume work survives today as 1 and 2 Samuel, named after the last of the “judges” who ruled before the monarchy began.
A word about sources. If you are embarking on your first intense study of the Old Testament, Samuel 1 and 2 is truly worth your while to read cover to cover. My favorite translation is Robert Alter’s The David Story (1999) which I reviewed on its Amazon site a few years ago. Alter is the foremost American scholar and translator of Old Testament texts. His translations carry a commentary at the foot of each page which provide a wealth of content and context, though in 1 & 2 Samuel the text flow is quite self-explanatory. The David Story is available in Kindle form as well as hard copy.
The setting for Sunday’s reading takes us back five centuries before the Babylonian Captivity. Moses died before leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, and the task fell to Joshua. The “Promised Land” posed one minor difficulty—it was already someone else’s promised land, specifically the Canaanites.’ The Sunday text quotes the Lord’s reminder to the Prophet Nathan that “I have been with you wherever you went, and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.” The Book of Joshua describes how the Lord did most of the heavy lifting in the battles of the Israelites to bring the Canaanites to submission.
Once the smoke of the Canaanite war had settled, Israel was ruled by a series of warlords known collectively as Judges, and hence the name of the Old Testament Book of Judges. The final four Judges are probably best known to us: Gideon, Samson, Deborah, and Samuel. 1 Kings begins with Samuel, widely respected for his wisdom, facing increasing pressure from his countrymen to anoint a king to provide battlefield leadership and unity in the face of a growing Philistine threat. As Father Boadt observes (home page,195) the Chronicler [author] records a difference of opinion within Israel about whether it was wise to invest so much power into one man. In any event, Saul was anointed the first king of Israel. An insecure man, Saul is described by Boadt as a valiant warrior who won several battles but failed to finally suppress the Philistines and unite the Israelites. Saul’s insecurities led him to alienate himself from his mentor Samuel, his son Jonathan, and the young warrior David, who slew the Philistine hero, Goliath. Saul tried to kill David, who fled the region and recruited a mercenary army to fight his way to the throne of Israel.
2 Samuel is the story of David’s kingship. On many levels he was a masterful and successful ruler. When, a millennium later, Jesus was welcomed by his people, he was saluted with the cry “Hosanna to the Son of David.” In Sunday’s reading, David is told through the prophet Nathan in so many words that there is nothing he can do to return to the Lord what the Lord has done and will do for David. This reading is inserted on the Fourth Sunday of Advent because of God’s promise to David that he would “raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.”
This prophesy passed through multiple interpretations. It could and was applied to Solomon, David’s successor, perhaps the most visibly successful king in the Israelite dynasty. As the kingship fell into decline after Solomon, the Davidic promise was interpreted through the hope that another king on the horizon would restore and reunite Israel, which over time separated into a northern and a southern kingdom. In later pre-Christian times the Davidic prophesy took on a more generic—even apocalyptic—look forward to better days. Does this prophesy apply to Jesus? The answer is yes, if one understands the term “kingdom” correctly. The Gospels describe the excitement of the crowds at the appearance of Jesus and apply to him the term “Son of David.” They evidently saw his potential as a leader in their Roman-occupied land.
Jesus would indeed usher in a new kingdom, but as he would say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” The new kingdom spoken of in Sunday’s first reading would reach far beyond crowns and kingdoms. The glory of the ultimate successor of David would shine forth in perfect love and obedience of the Father of Jesus. For this reason, the Sunday text is paired with St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, where a humble maiden gave her consent to the establishment of a new reign in the hearts of all people of the earth.