Yes, I know, in most of the civilized church world, today was Ascension Sunday, in which the church marks the moment when the resurrected Jesus returned to His Father in Heaven (Mark 16:19-20, Luke 24:50-53, and Acts 1:6-11) after spending a little quality time with the disciples, eating breakfast with them and walking through walls.
But Jennifer and I did not attend a church in the civilized world. This morning, we attended Velocity Church, which is affiliated in some way with Bloc Ministries in the city’s East Price Hill neighborhood. It’s what Jennifer calls “a recovery church,” and the worship feel — and those who were worshiping — felt a lot like The Bridge, the ministry for ex-offenders at Bethel Evangelical Lutheran in the West Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago. It was musical, focused on God’s grace and redemption from sin, and spoken to people keenly aware — for whatever reason — of their sinfulness.
Which was all good.
The passage the pastor focused on was 2 Samuel 9:1-13, a passage I knew (of course, because I’m an Old Testament geek), but one I’d never really focused on. Because it’s not bloody, like so much else in the David saga, and in the story of Israel.
But it is actually an amazing story of grace, this tale of David befriending the surviving son of Jonathan simply for the sake of his friendship — his love — for the long-deceased son of Saul.
1 And David said, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” 2 Now there was a servant of the house of Saul whose name was Ziba, and they called him to David. And the king said to him, “Are you Ziba?” And he said, “I am your servant.” 3 And the king said, “Is there not still someone of the house of Saul, that I may show the kindness of God to him?” Ziba said to the king, “There is still a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in his feet.” 4 The king said to him, “Where is he?” And Ziba said to the king, “He is in the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, at Lo- debar.” 5 Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, at Lo- debar. 6 And Mephibosheth [pronounced מְפִיבֹ֨שֶׁת!] the son of Jonathan, son of Saul, came to David and fell on his face and paid homage. And David said, “Mephibosheth!” And he answered, “Behold, I am your servant.” 7 And David said to him, “Do not fear, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always.” 8 And he paid homage and said, “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?”
9 Then the king called Ziba, Saul’s servant, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s grandson. 10 And you and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him and shall bring in the produce, that your master’s grandson may have bread to eat. But Mephibosheth your master’s grandson shall always eat at my table.” Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants. 11 Then Ziba said to the king, “According to all that my lord the king commands his servant, so will your servant do.” So Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons. 12 And Mephibosheth had a young son, whose name was Mica. And all who lived in Ziba’s house became Mephibosheth’s servants. 13 So Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he ate always at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both his feet. (2 Samuel 9:1-13 ESV)
The preacher noted the context for this. David could easily, now that he is properly enthroned as king of both Judah and Israel, wipe out the last of Saul’s descendants. After all, the crippled young man in front of David (or any of his sons) could credibly make a claim to the throne. Those are loose ends you want to tie up, especially if your path to the throne was long and arduous, as David’s was.
But instead, David wants to show “the kindness of God [חֶ֣סֶד אֱלֹהִ֑ים]” to Mephibosheth, to make him a permanent resident of David’s house, to “eat at my table always.” Mephibosheth is family now, and with this, I suspect he expects the young man to return David’s grace with gratitude and loyalty of his own.
(As an aside, the Deuteronomistic history ends with the report that the deposed king of Judah, Jehoiachin, “dined every day of his life” at the table of the king of Babylon.)
This, of course, is not the end of the Mephibosheth story. Later, in 2 Samuel 16, Ziba will claim his master is actually supportive of Absolam’s coup against David (“He remains in Jerusalem,” Ziba lies to David of his master, “for he said, ‘Today the house of Israel will give me back the kingdom of my father.’”), and gains half of his master’s wealth. In 2 Samuel 19, after the whole Absalom matter has been settled by Joab’s armor bearers (while the young usurper was hanging helpless from a tree), Mephibosheth will gratefully let Ziba have everything “since my lord the king has safely come home.” And not killed him, despite the reports of his disloyalty.
Mephibosheth escapes death at the hands of David one last time in 2 Samuel 21, when God sends a famine on all of Israel because Saul “put the Gibeonites to death” because “Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah.”
(2 Samuel 21:2 ESV) (There does not appear to be an earlier reference to any massacre or military action by Saul in the Bible.) David asks the Gibeonites what justice would look like, and they tell him, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in the territory of Israel…” (2 Sam 21:5)
However, that isn’t possible — Saul is long dead. (And, come to think of it, God picked an odd time to suddenly become concerned about Israel’s blood guilt over the failure to keep an oath of protection.) So, the Gibeonites ask that “seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the Lord.” (2 Sam 21:6) And David gives them. But scripture specifically notes that David “spared Mephibosheth.”
And, what follows is an interesting echo of the Antigone story (one with a much happier ending). Rizpah, the mother of two of the executed sons of Saul — Armoni and (an apparently different) Mephibosheth — then dons sackcloth and ashes and mourns in public by sitting and not moving for what I gather is a very long time. David finds the bones of her dead kinsmen Saul and Jonathan and has them interred in the family cave.
And then scripture notes something interesting: And after that God responded to the plea for the land. The famine ends.
Now, none of this is really grace in the way the preacher meant it. David here has to right some wrongs to appease God: he has to avenge the wrong done to the Gibeonites (by giving in to their desire for vengeance/justice), but he also has to give Rizpah the wife/concubine her due as well, the bones of her kinsmen, that they may rest with their fathers. There’s a reminder in this, something that is clear throughout the story — Saul may have been a bad king who lost the favor of the Lord, but he was still king, and still God’s chosen, and so killing him came with a steep price. As did leaving his corpse to rot with the Philistines. Saul’s bones deserved to rest with those of his fathers.
Getting back to grace. David shows kindness to Mephibosheth not just once, but *three times*, an account of an oath he swore. Because he loved Johnathan.
“Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
26 I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.
27 “How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished.”
(2 Samuel 1:25-27 ESV)
This is what struck me as really gracious, and the real metaphor at work here. David cares for Mephibosheth — spares his life over and over again and invites him to his table — on account of the love he had for Jonathan. (Whatever that love may mean.) God loves David — this is clear in . God loves David something fierce, and makes a promise to David, in which he renews the promises he made to Abraham and adds some things:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. ’” 17 In accordance with all these words, and in accordance with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David. (2 Samuel 7:12-17 ESV)
And this promise is renewed through the prophet Jeremiah, who is preaching in the midst of the Kingdom of Judah’s final war with Babylon.
14 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
17 “For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, 18 and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings, and to make sacrifices forever. (Jeremiah 33:14-18 ESV)
Grace is not an abstraction. It is not a nice idea, a feeling, or even a principle. It is enfleshed. It is David extending “God’s kindness” to the son of his dearest friend solely on account of that friendship. It is God extending to David a promise that his kingdom will endure forever, and it is God extending to embattled and besieged Jerusalem that the kingdom – which is on the brink of defeat and occupation — that redemption is coming.
It is Jesus Christ, who is our redemption, who bears and completes the promises of God. Who extends to us the kindness of God, invites us to eat at his table, not because we’ve earned it, but solely out of love. Because of promises made long ago to people who were not us.