Advent reflection: Son of David

Message given at Saanichton Bible Fellowship; 13 December 2020

“For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer (from God is in the Manger)

TEXTS: 2 Sam 7:1-17; Romans 1:1-7

i. Preamble

On this third Sunday of Advent, in keeping with the Advent theme of longing and waiting, or promise and fulfilment to use the Biblical categories, our main text for reflection is 2 Samuel 7:1-17, the account of David’s desire to build God a “house.” Our New Testament counterpart is a slightly unusual choice, Romans 1:1-7, as it gives peculiar expression to the ultimate fulfilment of God’s response to David through the prophet Nathan, that he instead would be the one to build David a “dynasty.”

ii. Expectation: The Promise of a Davidic Dynasty

The life of David, complex and full of intrigue, is one to which we find ourselves irresistibly drawn. And perhaps the most striking description we have of him, before his fame and later tragic failure, is from the lips of a young messenger asked to give a report to Saul:

“I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is a skilful musician, a mighty man of valour, a warrior, one prudent in speech, a handsome man, and the LORD is with him.” (1 Samuel 16:18)

By the time we meet David again in 2 Samuel 7, he is a King of renown ensconced in a royal palace, secure in his reign on all flanks—and he has pause for momentary reflection on God’s extraordinary goodness to him. He realises then that he has a palace, but that God lives in a tent! The idea comes to him that he might be the one to build God a house, a palace, or a temple, and he offers this suggestion to Nathan. Through the prophet in return, David’s proposition gives rise to a response from God. Unexpected as it is, it constitutes what might well be the biblical-theological pinnacle of the Old Testament. This is a key moment in that God regathers his covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, and recasts it in Davidic form in order to focus on the house that God himself will build for David. “House” in Hebrew, we are to be reminded, means more than a palace or a temple, it incorporates a “dynasty.”

If one is familiar with God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, the following excerpts from 2 Samuel 7 provide clear echoes. For example, in v.9 YHWH the covenant God repeats the promise of “a great name” (cf. Gen 12:2); in v.10 the promise of an enduring “place for my people Israel” (cf. Gen 12:1); and in v.13 the establishment of the “the throne of his kingdom forever” (cf. Gen 12:3). All are Abrahamic promises renewed and intensified, as noted in v.14 where God introduces the idea that he will be “a father to him [David’s descendent] and he will be a son to me”, and especially v.16 in which we find the climactic statement; “and your house and your kingdom shall endure before me forever, your throne shall be established forever.” In 2 Samuel 7 then, we are able to pinpoint the heart of the Messianic hope of the Old Testament, a hope that becomes increasingly dominant as we continue turning the pages through the prophetic writings, leading us all the way to the doorstep of the New Testament, and to the opening line of the Gospel of Matthew chapter 1 verse 1:

“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ [God’s anointed King, the Messiah], the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

Here is the surprise though. In 2 Samuel 7 David wanted to do something for God, but in one of the great historical and literary reversals of all time, God instead chose to do something for David. As one writer put it; “a human urge for temple building gave way to the promise of a divinely constructed dynasty” and “a royal strategy [for earthly kingdom building, is] transformed into a promise of divine and unconditional grace” (Tony Cartledge).

This is a spectacular turning point in the biblical revelation, and from here onwards the waiting for and the coming of the Son of David is at the core of Israel’s Messianic hope and expectation. This is the first thing to note therefore; that in considering the coming of the Son of David, what is asked of us, is to lean into the God who has given a promise. Bono of U2 famously stated that “a vision without a promise is just a fantasy.” Indeed. Christian faith is not based on fantasy, human dreams and aspirations, but invested in promise. In particular, a promise not unfamiliar to us during this season, that “a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse“ (Isaiah 11:1), and that “a child will be born to us, a son given,” one who will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God!“ (Isaiah 9:6).

iii. Fulfilment: Son of God in Power

Turning our attention to verses 3-4 of Romans 1 in keeping with this promise, we will discover a few more surprises. Note the text again:

“the Gospel of God“ (v.1): … “concerning His Son, who was born a descendent [seed] of David according to the flesh (v.3), who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the [S]pirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 1:1,3-4, NASB)

Note the transition from God’s Son (v.3), who, humanly speaking is born the “seed (descendent) of David,” and who, following the resurrection, is declared “the Son of God with Power” (v.4), the latter a single concept in the Greek. What the text suggests is a peculiar pattern of Messianic fulfilment, which is linked to Paul’s understanding of the very nature of the Old Testament promise. Let me clarify. The temptation exists to read into these verses a doctrinal formula regarding the authentic humanity and the authentic divinity of Jesus. It is true of course, that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, and we affirm whole-heartedly what in doctrinal terms is called Dual-Nature Single-Person Christology, but that is not the point the Apostle is making here. Rather, he is concerned with the manner in which Jesus the Son of God fulfils his Messianic calling, which is best described by means of a pattern of humiliation and exaltation. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, in humility and in fulfilment of the Davidic promise, took on flesh (true humanity—he is in the line of David), in order to accomplish what the Messiah, the Anointed One, was destined to do. That is, to redeem his people, to vanquish his enemies and to establish the eternal rule, the kingdom of God. All of which he accomplishes through his suffering and sacrifice on the cross; his triumph over death in the resurrection, and his ascension into the heavens to rule and reign—seated at the right hand of the Father.

This pattern of humiliation and exaltation is the great surprise of the Messianic vocation (though we should not be surprised if we’ve read the Old Testament; cf. Luke 14:25-27!), as David himself prophesied, in poetry and song, speaking beyond what he knew or could understand. He does so in Psalm 2, Psalm 22 and Psalm 89 in reference to Divine sonship, but also to suffering and humiliation, and ultimately Psalm 110, the most referenced Psalm in all of the New Testament, speaking of all things having been put under the feet of great King David’s greater Son (v.1, cf. Psalm 8:6b). This is why Paul is so confident to call Jesus the “Son of God in Power.” And yet again, there is a twist, as at the time of his writing with Nero established in Rome, a cult of ‘assumptive divinity’ had taken hold of the emperors by which the Caesar was designated no mere mortal, but a ‘son of god.’ Well, says Paul, Jesus is the Son of God in Power, a deeply subversive and dangerous statement! However, for God to raise up and establish the eternal dynasty of David it was never going to be a private act relegated to the domain of personal religion, nor was the dynasty of David in gathering up the Abrahamic promises for all nations, ever meant for Israel alone. No, Jesus is Lord of all lords, and King of all kings. The Gospel is public truth, and presses for an answer to the question ‘how then should we live?’ in anticipation of the return and final rule of this King.

iv. Waiting: Faithful living

How do we then live in a time as troubled as ours? Every generation believes the (best and) worst concerning their own, but 2020 has proven to be the unveiling of an anxious epoch. Even those slow on the uptake are awaking to tectonic shifts in the foundations of Western Culture. And for everyone who has read history, the signs are apparent of malevolent powers lurking in the wings, and of forces hungry to exploit. What constitutes a faithful Christian response when evil seeks opportunity? Is there any relevance to Jesus the Son of David?

Os Guinness, apologist and cultural commentator, suggests that a situation like ours presents us with three options. The first is to fight and engage the culture-wars on every side. The second is to take flight and retreat into an underground Christian community, and hide till the trouble is over. Both are viable options depending on the exact nature of the situation. However, by far the best recourse is to seek out how to live faithfully—in a new way—and to ask the question, what is the shaping power of the Gospel in culture? Given that the Gospel is public truth, we are reminded that we are to “live not by lies”—to borrow the title of a famous Solzhenitsyn essay—but, to live by “promise.” And here is the great promise of the Bible; that Jesus, the Son of David is also the Son of God in Power. Jesus is Lord. Furthermore, given that the Messianic pattern of overcoming is the way of humility and exaltation, we who follow in his footsteps will conform to the same pattern. There is no Christian renaissance that has not followed the Christological pattern, and the mystery of the Kingdom is the paradox that Christ’s rule coexists alongside the humility and suffering of his people.

We may wake up tomorrow with the church having found sudden deep disfavour in the eyes of the world, if it has not already, and the culture having progressed from incuriosity to open hostility towards God, if it has not already. What we need to know is that this is not novel in the experience of God’s people, nor is it a threat to One who is able to deliver on his promises. GK Chesterton famously asserted that “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” Furthermore, there is no power able to triumph over humility, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer beautifully illustrated:

“For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No powerful person dares to approach the manger, … For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, … Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.”  (from God is in the Manger)

Let us therefore take Advent courage as we wait with great confidence for the return of our King; Son of David, Son of God in Power. “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).