Friday, July 8

Second Samuel 24: The story of the plague is placed near the end of the Book of Samuel, because it leads directly to the actual spot where the temple is to be constructed.

The account begins with David’s plan to take a census of the people. Given the two accounts of census taking in the Book of Numbers, David probably thinks precedence is on his side in this matter. As was the case in Numbers, David probably wants this census in order to take stock of his military strength. This impulse would also account for Joab’s role in the story.

Why did Joab, not exactly a paragon of moral probity in Holy Scripture, object to the census? We are not told; but a plausible conjecture observes that a census is politically risky. If David orders this census for purposes of military conscription, it may be that Joab is afraid of political backlash within Israel’s population. That is to say, if David is acting in a high-handed way, it may be the case that Israel will see him acting in a high-handed way . . . and resent it! As we saw in the matter of Absalom’s death, Joab is sometimes more perceptive than David in reading the pulse of the Israelites.

Like Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, David is visited with “plague,” maggefah (verses 21,25). Is the author suggesting that David, in ordering this census, is acting in a highhanded fashion like Pharaoh? Joab seems to think so. In any case, David’s conscience afflicts him as soon as the census is completed. He knows he has done wrong. He prays, and the Lord answers the prayer by sending him a prophetic word.

The Prophet Gad, in reprimanding David, offers him a choice among three punishments: seven years of famine, three months of foreign invasion, or three days of plague.

At the conclusion of the plague, David causes sacrifice to be offered at the very place where the plague ceases—the threshing floor of Araunah. The king’s negotiations to purchase the field from Araunah put the reader in mind of Abraham’s real estate arrangement with the Hittites for the cave of Machpelah in Genesis 23, but the similarities between the two texts appear to bear no theological or thematic significance.

This final chapter, narrating David’s sacrifice on the threshing floor, ties the Book of Samuel back to its beginning, where sacrifice was offered at Shiloh, but the purchase of this property, on which Solomon will build the temple, also points the Book of Samuel toward the future, when the sacrifices of Israel will be offered in that very place.

Saturday, July 8

First Kings 1: This first chapter of Kings, which narrates the stormy events that lead to Solomon’s succession to his father, contains several scenes. It first tells of the young woman Abishag the Shunammite (verses 1-4). Although she is chosen, like Esther, by a sort of beauty contest, she never becomes a heroine. She remains a secondary character, rather, whose brief story here serves a two-fold narrative function:

First, it illustrates the advanced age and failing health of King David. This condition explains the sudden interest in the choice of a successor.

Second, the introduction of Abishag sets the stage for the later intrigue in which Adonijah will request that she be given to him as a wife. That request, which will seal the prince’s doom, is found in the next chapter.

In the chapter’s second scene (verses 5-10), the author moves the narrative from David’s bedroom to the suburban village of El Rogel, just south of Jerusalem. Here David’s son, Adonijah, takes advantage of a clan festival to gather the forces he needs to accomplish a coup, even though David is still alive and has not publicly declared his appointed heir. Adonijah’s claim to the throne is plausible; The older brothers, Amnon and Absalom, are both dead, and perhaps Chileab (Second Samuel 3:3), so Adonijah can advance his case on the premise of primogeniture.

The matter is murky, nonetheless, and the prince’s failure to invite Solomon to the gathering at El Rogel suggests that Adonijah knows, or, at least, seriously suspects that David had Solomon in mind as his successor.

What Adonijah does is not only murky; it is also dangerous. Even though he has the support of the rest of his siblings, at least some of the army (led by Joab), the priest Abiathar, and other officials of the court, the success of this coup depends on a certain measure of secrecy. The royal garden at El Rogel (according to Josephus, Antiquities 7.14.4) is sufficiently secluded to avoid too much notice, until the deed is actually done.

Even before the events at El Rogel became common knowledge in Jerusalem, however, Nathan the prophet learns of it, whether by secret communication or prophetic insight. Perhaps Nathan has inquired to learn why he was omitted from the guest list!

Before leaving this second scene, it is instructive to reflect on striking points of resemblance between Adonijah and his older brother Absalom, who had earlier attempted the displace their father from the throne. Both sons are manifestly ambitious and overly eager. The author describes both of them as unusually handsome (verse 5; 2 Samuel 14:25) and mentions the same love of pomp and display in each man (verse 5; 2 Samuel 15:1). Their shared arrogance also prompted an improper interest in David’s wives (1 Kings 2:13-22; 2 Samuel 16:20-22).

In the third scene (verses 11-14) Nathan sizes up the situation and enlists the aid of Bathsheba to thwart Adonijah’s plans. Bathsheba springs into action to secure the succession for her own son, Solomon. Instances of ambitious mothers endeavoring to promote the political fortunes of their sons are absolutely commonplace in documents from ancient history, with examples from Assyria (Sammurammat, mother of Adad-Nerari III), Macedonia (Olympias, mother of Alexander), Rome (Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero), and so forth.

As the fourth scene (verse 15-37) opens, Bathsheba, following Nathan’s counsel, pays a visit to David. There is a note of poignancy in this account, at the point where Bathsheba, entering the royal chamber, finds David attended his newer and younger wife, Abishag the Shunammite. Since the presence of the Abishag at this moment adds nothing essential to the story, the inclusion of this detail serves to add feeling and living color to the narrative. That is to say, it underlines Bathsheba’s self-abasement on behalf of her son. She must come and prostrate herself before her husband, while the younger woman, now the king’s favorite, witnesses her mortification.

Bathsheba’s mission is successful. Nathan enters the chamber at the conclusion of her presentation, and events begin to take a new turn. David is not nearly so senile as Adonijah’s co-conspirators imagine. He arranges to have Solomon declared king forthwith, and the friends of Adonijah, learning of this, quickly scatter, leaving the would-be usurper to seek asylum in the sanctuary. Solomon, perhaps feeling generous in the flush of victory, pardons him.

As events will show, Bathsheba takes note of this, aware that Solomon’s position is not entirely secure as long as Adonijah lives. The latter, in the following chapter, will foolishly hand Bathsheba the means to get rid of him.

Sunday, July 10

First Kings 2: This chapter begins with David’s exhortation to Solomon, which includes some unsettled “family business” with respect to Joab and Shimei. (The former’s recent complicity in Adonijah’s plot seems to have settled David’s mind on this point.)

David’s death in 961 B.C. is told with the briefest notice.

In the previous chapter, the reader learned that David’s most recent wife, Abishag, is still a virgin. Adonijah, who has evidently taken a shine to the young lady, wants to marry her. Foolishly, he asks Bathsheba to intervene with Solomon on his behalf.

Bathsheba spots her chance; she has no doubt about how Solomon will respond to this request that David’s young “widow” be given in marriage to David’s own son. So she makes the request on his behalf, and that is the end of poor Adonijah.

Bathsheba is now the Queen Mother, the Gebirah. The true place of the Queen Mother in Holy Scripture is amply illustrated by comparing two scenes, in which Bathsheba is pictured as entering the throne room to speak to the king. In the first of these she is described as coming into the presence of her husband, King David: “And Bathsheba bowed and did homage to the king” (1:16). In the second instance, she comes into the presence of Solomon, her son: “And the king rose up to meet her and bowed down to her, and sat down on his throne and had a throne set for the king’s mother; so she sat at his right hand” (2:19). A simple comparison of these texts indicates clearly the deference and honor with which a Davidic king expects his mother to be treated. If the king bows down before her, how much more his subjects?

(It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Bible-believing Christians cultivate the deepest, most affectionate reverence for her of whose Son the angel said: “The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David” [Luke 1:32]. She has from the beginning been invoked as “the mother of my Lord” [1:43], and in their time of need believers have ever sought her intercession with her Son [John 2:1–11]. Among Christians there can be no doubt that in the kingdom of heaven she reigns as Queen and sovereign Lady in glory in the presence of great David’s greater Son.)

The chapter includes Solomon’s fulfillment of David’s instructions relative to Joab and Shimei. Since the former has recently joined an attempted coup in the realm, he is regarded as a continuing threat to Solomon’s throne. His life is forfeit immediately, notwithstanding his attempt to gain asylum in the sanctuary.

Shimei, who does not represent an immediate threat, is treated more leniently, until he provokes Solomon further. Then he is executed, as well.

Monday, July 11

First Kings 3: Certain unpleasant executions out of the way, Solomon turns his mind to governing.

First mentioned is his marriage to an Egyptian princess (verses 1-2), which forestalls any problems from that part of the world. The wedding is expensive; to supply the bride’s dowry, her father–something of a cheapskate, it appears—destroys a Philistine city (cf. 9:16).

This unnamed pharaoh reigns toward the end of the XXIst Dynasty. It will be replaced by the much stronger XXIInd Dynasty toward the end of Solomon’s time on the throne.

Next comes the account of Solomon’s prayer and mystic dream at Gibeon (verses 3-15), a city and shrine (cf. First Chronicles 16:39) six miles northwest of Jerusalem. (Josephus speaks of two such dreams of Solomon [Antiquities 8.4.6].) Egyptologists mention similar stories of dream-revelations made to various pharaohs, and Holy Scripture gives other examples (Jacob, Joseph, Daniel, et alii). Especially pertinent are the dreams of the pharaoh in the Joseph story and of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel; these, like Solomon’s, are “royal dreams.”

The wisdom sought by Solomon is, literally translated, “a hearing heart to judge.” That is to say, it is a practical wisdom, which makes prudent decisions in governing and deciding both policies and cases. A first example of the latter is the famous episode of the two women and the one living baby in verses 16-28.

Solomon’s wisdom, the answer to his prayer, causes him to stand at the beginning of Israel’s Wisdom Literature. He is credited with the earliest collection of Wisdom sayings that came to fullness in the Book of Proverbs.

Prayer is the first step in the attainment of Wisdom: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). In the scene at Gibeon, Solomon may be regarded as the living embodiment of the quest described in the Book of Proverbs:

Yes, if you cry out for discernment, / ?And lift up your voice for understanding, / If you seek her as silver,? / And search for her as for hidden treasures; / Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,? / And find the knowledge of God. / For the Lord gives wisdom;? / From His mouth come knowledge and understanding (Proverbs 2:3-6).

Tuesday, July 12

First Kings 4: In this chapter the reader discerns a variety of “voices” in the description of Solomon’s reign. There is a voice of satisfaction, for example, in the description of the king’s wisdom in verses 29-34. There is also, however, a hint of dissatisfaction in the voice in several other verses that speak of the imposition of compelled labor and services on the people (cf. also 5:13-18).

There are two major differences between the political apparatus of the reigns of David and Solomon. First, that of Solomon is more complex; there are new offices, which reflect the more extensive commercial and geopolitical activities of a new order.

Second, the government of Solomon’s reign is more centralized. Whereas David had relied on the traditional tribal arrangement, Solomon imposes geographical divisions less reliant on tribal borders, and over the sundry territories established by these divisions he appoints royal representatives answerable to the central government at Jerusalem. Thus, the largely amphictyonic kingdom governed by David is replaced by a highly unified political system. That is to say, Solomon replaces a political tradition with a political theory.

Thus, taxes in support of the monarch—and the monarch’s growing interest in public works—are no longer collected from the tribes; they are paid to tax collectors who operate outside of tribal authority and control. Extensive levies of goods and services—forced labor!—are directly laid on the population by district governors appointed from Jerusalem. The function of these governors is largely fiscal.

Solomon makes a slight effort to disguise this new political format by maintaining a division of the kingdom into twelve regions. Since this was the traditional number of Israel’s tribes, the king hopes, perhaps. no one will notice the new arrangement! Any careful observer, however, may observe that the new territorial precincts do not coincide with the traditional tribal boundaries. In addition, it is instructive to observe that two of these governors are sons-in-law to the king (verses 11 and 15).

In his imposition of forced labor on the population, particularly with respect to his extensive building projects, Solomon resembles no one so much as the pharaoh encountered by Moses in the Book of Exodus. And the reader recalls Samuel’s prophecy that such an imposition would be the lot of Israel if ever they established a monarchy.

Because of the feeble political systems at either end of the Fertile Crescent (Egypt and Babylon), Solomon enjoyed the freedom to extend his influence, largely through commerce, eastward toward the Euphrates and southward through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. His father, David, had subdued all the kingdoms in the region that might otherwise have challenged Solomon’s hegemony over much of the Fertile Crescent.

Wednesday, July 13

Mark 9:30-37: Earlier in our reading of this gospel, we saw the reaction of St. Peter when the Lord gave His first prophecy of His coming sufferings and death (8:31-33). In the present text, when Jesus prophesies His coming Passion for the second time, the response of the Apostles is no better. They do not understand what He is saying, and they are afraid to ask Him (verse 32). The reason they do not understand what Jesus says, of course, is that they are preoccupied with their own worldly ambitions. When questioned on the matter, “they kept silence, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest” (verse 34).

This is beginning to look like a theme in Mark, as indeed it is. The second half of Mark’s Gospel is built around the Word of the Cross, to which is contrasted the worldly ambitions of those who hear it without understanding. The Word of the Cross poses a radical challenge to those intent on living for themselves and the pursuit of their own ambitions.

And how should the Word of the Cross be heard? With the attitude of Jesus Himself, who assumed the condition and posture of a servant for our sakes. Jesus’ servanthood is explicitly held out as an example: “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be the last of all, and the servant of all” (verse 35). The Cross of Jesus is not only the efficient cause of our redemption; it is also the exemplary cause of our sanctification. As He did after the first prophecy of the Passion (8:34-38), Jesus here holds out the Word of the Cross as a program for how a Christian must live.

First Kings 5: We come now to several chapters descriptive of the Solomonic prosperity of Israel in the mid-tenth century. In yesterday’s reading in The Saint James Daily Devotional Guide we considered the historical circumstances Solomon exploited to bring about this prosperity.

The present chapter makes clear the mutual dependence of Israel and Phoenicia. Until the reign of David, the Philistines (known in Egyptian sources as “the sea peoples”) were able sharply to curtail the mercantile enterprises of the Phoenicians. Once David quelled the Philistines, however, Phoenician trade regained its strength in the eastern Mediterranean. As long as Israel controls the coasts of the Levant, the Phoenicians are free to rule the seas.

Moreover, Israel is the necessary link between Phoenicia and the further markets south of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. That is to say, the Phoenicians need Israel and are glad to be part of a large mercantile alliance that has Solomon at its center.

A pact between the Phoenician king, Hiram, and King Solomon makes possible the construction of the temple at Jerusalem. The Phoenicians have the building materials and the engineering talent Solomon needs for this project, and Solomon has the money to pay for it.

Thursday, July 14

First Kings 6: The account of the temple’s construction, which occupies the next two chapters, includes a section that speaks of other building projects: Solomon’s palace, the judgment hall (the particularly important “hall of pillars,” where the king also oversees forensic cases), and a palace for the daughter of pharaoh, the king’s chief wife.

The construction of the temple begins in April of 957 B.C., identified as the 480th year after the Exodus (verse 1). In its general layout, Solomon’s temple consists of two inner rooms that form the sanctuary, and a vestibule, or porch. On three sides, it is surrounded by auxiliary chambers. The central room of the structure is the sanctuary, or holy place.

The farther, inner room, cubic in shape, is the most holy place (“holy of holies”), the throne room of God. It is overlaid with gold (verse 20). Within it are placed two images of angelic guardians, which are called the Cherubim. These are winged figures resembling the Egyptian sphinx. From what we know of other such figures archeology has uncovered in the region, they often serve as the supporting parts of a throne. Hence, they apparently represent the throne of God, who “thrones upon the Cherubim.” These figures are about fifteen feet high; their wings spread from wall to wall on a north-south axis.

In front of this inner sanctuary stands an altar of cedar wood, overlaid with gold. Although the temple is constructed of stone, no stone is visible within it, being overlaid with paneling of cedar wood, on which there are intricate carvings of gourds and open flowers.

Corresponding to the seven days of Creation, the temple’s construction requires seven years. In this respect it is instructive to note how often these two chapters use the verb “finish” (kalah—6:9,14,38; 7:1,40), the very word used in Genesis 2:1 to speak of the completion of God’s creative work.

The temple has other features associated with the original garden in which the first man was placed and over which he was appointed as caretaker and vice-regent. These features include the images of vegetation and animals on the interior wooden paneling (verses 14-18).

A parallel account in Second Chronicles 3 specifies that the temple is constructed on Mount Moriah, the scene where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

Friday, July 15

First Kings 7: The material in this chapter is disparate, with interruptions in the narrative of the temple’s construction.

First, there are eight verses that speak of the two royal palaces (for the king and his chief consort) and the hall of judgment.

As the Lord’s son (verse 14), Solomon wants his own house close to the Lord’s. This physical proximity of the two “dwellings” is sustained throughout the successive generations of monarchy, when the precincts of the temple are extended to the royal palace and other official buildings of the realm. That is to say, the Lord’s own kingship over the people—the principle that made them, in fact, His own people—includes the king as the Lord’s viceroy.

The political effect of this inclusion is two-fold. It enhances the legitimacy of the royal house, established by the Lord’s covenant with David, and it serves as a reminder to the king that his occupation of the throne is a matter of stewardship; he is answerable to the judgment of the One who inaugurated that covenant.

Second, there is a description of the masonry (verses 9-12) in the temple. Before the narrator goes on to describe the metal work in the temple, however, he wants to speak of the chief artisan of this work.

Third, he introduces a second Hiram (called Huram in Chronicles), an expert sheet metal worker, who is probably named after Solomon’s collaborator, the king of Tyre. His mother is described as the “widow of the tribe of Naphtali.” This perhaps means she is the widow of a member the tribe of Naphtali, since we are elsewhere told that the lady herself is a Danite (Second Chronicles 2:14). (Josephus claims that this artisan is a full-blooded Israelite—cf. Antiquities 8.3.4). In respect to this Hiram, the reader recalls that Moses, in the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness, made use of another charismatic artist, Bezalel (cf. Exodus 31:2-5).

Fourth, the story proceeds to tell of Hiram’s work on the brazen pillars (verses 15-22), the molten sea (verses 23-26), the various stands and lavers (verses 26-29), and the other utensils (verses 40-47) and vessels (verses 48-51) needed for the appointment of Israel’s prescribed services of worship.