David Mourns for his Son / The Stoning of Stephen: June 12th 2021

2 Samuel 18:19-19:43

Ahiamaaz, son of Zadok, was keen to take the news of Absalom’s death to King David. However, Joab, the commander of David’s army, who had organised the killing of David’s son knew this would not be well received. He asked a dispensable Cushite to deliver the news instead. Joab knew that David had executed bearers of similar news on previous occasions and so it wasn’t a desirable task (2 Sam.18:22).

Ahiamaaz outran the Cushite but didn’t plainly tell David about Absalom’s death. The Cushite caught up and told David about his son’s fate. As Joab had predicted. David did not take the news well but at least he didn’t kill the messengers (2 Sam.18:33).

David wept and mourned for his son – the same son who had betrayed him and wanted him dead. Even though they had won a great victory, his army felt ashamed of their actions. Joab was furious and told David that he had humiliated his men: ‘You love those who hate you and hate those who love you’ (2 Sam.19:6-7). He told David to go and encourage his loyal men or there would be terrible consequences for his rule. To his credit, David accepted this valid criticism and realised his ingratitude. His men had loyally risked their lives for him and he sat down in front of his men (2 Sam.19:8).

It had been a very strange attempted coup. Both sides had been quite civil to each other. King David was generally liked as a monarch and there wasn’t an urgent need to replace him apart from his son having better hair and being slightly more popular. King David didn’t want his son harmed even though he had almost lost his throne to him. The whole affair had left the citizens of Israel and Judah very confused and in conflict with each other.

King David won the hearts of all the men of Judah again and they asked him and his men to return. They met him at the ford over the Jordan to welcome him home. Even Shimei, who had previously shouted curses at David, came to apologise. One of David’s retinue, Abishai, wanted to put Shimei to death for his sins but David rebuked him (2 Sam:19:22) in a similar way to Jesus rebuking James and John for wanting to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village (Luke 9:54-55). David graciously pardoned Shimei.

Saul’s grandson, Mephibosheth, also came to meet David. He explained that he had wanted to travel with David but had been betrayed by Ziba, his servant. David had earlier given Ziba all of Mephibosheth’s fields but on hearing this version of events ordered that they should be split equally. Mephibosheth said he didn’t want any land. He was just happy to see David home safely.

David wanted to repay his ally, Barzillai, for his support but he wouldn’t allow this. David blessed him instead and allowed him to return home. When David crossed over the Jordan, he was accompanied by all the men of Judah but just half the troops of Israel. This caused a large argument between Judah and Israel over who had more of a claim on David.

David was back in charge over a divided kingdom with the two major divisions bickering with each other. David had shown love for those who cursed and attacked him (Absalom and Shimei), he had demonstrated forgiveness of his enemies (the troops of Israel) and taken on board valid criticism (Joab). David had patiently listened to people’s apologies and excuses (Mephibosheth and Shimei) and he had blessed his friends (Barzillai and Kimham). However, he had punished those who had not followed his instructions. He had appointed the leader of the rebel army, Amasa, as commander of his army in place of Job (2 Sam.19:13). Job had stopped the civil war by killing David’s son but this was in defiance of David’s explicit instructions.

Just as God had punished Saul for not quite following his instructions, David was prepared to remove people who did not show complete obedience. David was a master politician and had managed to negotiate a return to his kingdom but he still had much work to do to reunite the nation.

Acts 7:44-8:3

Stephen finished his history of the Jewish nation with the devastating conclusion: ‘However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men’ (Acts 7:48). God was not confined just to the Jewish temple, with just the religious elite allowed to communicate with him once a year. Ezekiel had demonstrated in earlier scripture that when the Israelites had been exiled by the Babylonians, God had travelled with them. God is everywhere and in everything (Acts 7:50) and now, through the Holy Spirit, he is powerfully active within every individual Christian.

Stephen suddenly launched a verbal assault on the Sanhedrin. He even disowned them, calling their ancestors ‘your fathers’ rather than ‘our forefathers’ as he had done earlier. Their ancestors had persecuted all the prophets and had now betrayed and murdered the Righteous One (Acts 7:52). They had not obeyed the law and so, according to their own laws, should die. They would do so if they carried on being stiff-necked, resisting the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ invitation to eternal life through baptism and belief in him.

The Sanhedrin were furious. Truth is often unpopular. Stephen wasn’t bothered. He was full of the Holy Spirit. God was actually now living in him but his persecutors did not recognise God right in front of their furious faces. Stephen was consoled by a wonderful vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Stephen was soon to join Jesus in heaven as he was stoned to death and became the first Christian martyr. Stephen prayed that their sin should not be held against them (Acts 7:60) just as Jesus prayed ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34).

A young man, Saul, approved of Stephen’s death. He wanted to persecute and murder all Christians. He would shortly undergo one of the most dramatic transformations in the history of Christianity.

Persecution broke out and all, except the apostles, were scattered (Acts 8:1). Wherever the disciples fled, they preached the gospel and converted many.

God frustrates the plans of evil people. They had hoped to eliminate the church through persecution but their efforts forced the disciples to travel and evangelise; this made the church grow much faster than if they had been left in peace. It must have been distressing for the early Christians to flee from their homes but the miracles, signs, wonders and fruitfulness that the Holy Spirit worked through them brought consolation. ‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

Psalm 73:1-14

If we are not careful, we can start to ask ourselves why we bother to be Christians. Why do we suffer the abuse, hassle and pain of being ignored? Is it all in vain?

Non-believers can appear to be more prosperous, more confident, carefree and proud about their healthy and strong bodies.

However, envy is a major sin. We need to count the priceless blessings that God has given us throughout our lives. Our treasure is an everlasting treasure in heaven (Matt.6:19-20).

We should not become like the wicked who scoff and speak with malice (Ps.73:8). ‘From their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits’ (Ps.73:7).

Our destinies will be completely different. The wicked are on slippery ground and will suddenly be destroyed (Ps.73:18-19). In contrast, we will enter the sanctuary of God.

No matter how poorly we seem to be faring relative to the secular values of the consumerist world, when the Holy Spirit lives within us we have eternal joy in our hearts which can never be shaken: (Galatians 5:22). We should share with the world our testimony of his glorious deeds.

God will eternally be our refuge and our strength.

Image: ChristianeB, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Absalom’s death / Stephen’s Speech to the Sanhedrin: June 11th 2021

2 Samuel 16:15-18:18

David had sent his friend, Hushai, to give poor advice to Absalom (David’s treacherous son who was intent on taking over the country). Absalom suspected Hushai’s motives as he knew he was a good friend of David’s (2 Sam.16:17).

Absalom first of all asked the renowned wise man Ahithophel how to progress his coup. Ahithophel told him to publicly lie with all of David’s ten concubines. This would declare to the whole of Israel that he had formerly set himself against his father. Absalom did this because Ahithophel had a great reputation for giving wise advice (2 Sam.16:23).

Ahithophel then wisely recommended that Absalom should assassinate his father David and bring all the other Israelites back to him. Absalom would have gained the throne if he had done this but God had made him resistant to good advice.

This gave Hushai the chance to propose an alternative strategy. Hushai recommended gathering an enormous army and killing not only David but also all his supporters. He managed to get Absalom to sign up to this plan (2 Sam.17:14). Hushai then sent David a secret message telling him to cross the river Jordan to get away from Absalom’s army.

Aphithophel was so upset that his wise advice had been ignored that he went and hanged himself (2 Sam.17:23). It would have been better for him to stay loyal to King David and to have left Jerusalem with him.

David had travelled to Mahanaim and was treated hospitably by people in the region. They brought him and his army bedding and food.

David mustered his men for battle and wanted to fight with them but they would not allow it. He was too valuable. He stood at the gate of the city in support but begged his soldiers to be gentle with his disloyal son (2 Sam.18:5). It is incredible that David should still want to protect someone who had disrespected his reign and was leading a massive army to kill him.

In the ensuing battle, David’s army killed twenty thousand Israelite soldiers. They probably had far more motivation in that they were fighting for their lives whereas the Israelites were just trying to swap one satisfactory king with another. There is the intriguing statement: ‘the forest claimed more lives that day than the sword’ (2 Sam.18:8), which implies that God was fighting for David in unusual ways. Perhaps the enemy troops ran into the forest in panic and fell into concealed ravines / large pits. They might have been attacked by wild animals or God may even have mobilised the trees to entangle the troops and drop branches on them. I suspect this verse was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Fangorn forest in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

Absalom himself fell victim to one of the trees in the forest. His head got caught in the branches of a large oak as he was trying to ride under it and he was left swinging there. One of David’s soldiers saw his predicament but did nothing because of David’s command to be gentle with him. Joab, David’s army commander, thought this was nonsense and he and his men went and executed Absalom as if he were a piñata. Joab buried him in a large pit in the forest.

Absalom had earlier vainly set up a stone pillar as a monument to himself in the King’s Valley (see photo). It is difficult what to make of Absalom’s life. He had stood up for justice by avenging the rape of his sister Tamar but he had been extremely disrespectful and disloyal to his father, King David – possibly out of frustration that David hadn’t disciplined his rapist son, Amnon. David had welcomed Absalom back from exile and still wanted to protect him even after he had slept with his women and assembled a massive army to hunt him down. Absalom was a victim of his own good looks, charisma and vanity, lusting for power and thinking that he could do better than his father, who was loved by God. Absalom would have done better to emulate David’s patience, tolerance, love and humility.

Acts 7:20-43

Stephen continued to give the seventy one members of the Sanhedrin a potted history of the Jewish nation. At first glance, this would appear to be like me narrating the Nativity story to the Pope. I am sure they intimately knew the Old Testament storylines already but they had missed the vital point. All the Jewish Old Testament scriptures pointed to Jesus. Even today, many Jews aren’t taught the whole of Isaiah as it so obviously prophesies all about the life of Jesus (Isaiah 53:4-5).

However, Stephen would skilfully be building his later statements on the firm foundations of the Old Testament. Our faith in Jesus Christ is rooted upon the prophesies of the Old Testament. Jesus is referred to throughout the Old Testament and he often personally appeared and interacted with key characters, this is known as a Christophany,

Stephen reminded the Jewish elders that Moses had told the Israelites: ‘God will send you a prophet like me from your own people’ (Acts 7:37). This ‘prophet’ was Jesus, whom they had just killed. In fact, the Jews had killed virtually all of God’s messengers that had been sent to them. Jesus’ life had multiple similarities to that of Moses but Jesus was far greater. Moses delivered his people from oppression and slavery and led them to freedom. Jesus rescued the whole world from the oppression of the devil and the slavery of sin and death.

Stephen repeatedly demonstrated that God throughout history did not just dwell in the Jewish temple. God met people wherever they travelled from the burning bush in the desert, in Gentile territory, to the wonders he performed in Egypt. The Jewish religious elite did not accept that God had become incarnate in the form of Jesus and had performed miracles outside the temple. Many Christians these days tick off their religious obligations by monotonously attending a fixed-format service in a certain church each Sunday as if Jesus is confined to the four walls of that building. However, we carry God inside each one of us. He is fully portable. He is God of the whole world, there is nowhere we can hide from him, and we should be taking him with us each day to meet the needs of suffering people throughout the secular world.

Stephen would became the first Christian martyr and his evangelistic speech is a powerful example for all of us to follow. Stephen’s name mean ‘victor’s crown’ and, even though he was stoned to death, he delivered a timeless ‘victory speech’.

This event would be the official Jewish rejection of the renewed offer of the kingdom, paving the way for salvation to be eventually offered to all the Gentiles.

It would have intimidated an average person to give witness in front of 71 members of the Sanhedrin but Stephen was empowered by the Holy Spirit. He was meant to be defending himself but he went on the attack and prosecuted the Jewish elders. Stephen was innocent, yet he would be punished. The Sanhedrin were guilty yet would escape punishment until God meted out his eternal justice.

Religious leaders have a history of rejecting God’s truth and his messengers. The Israelites had rejected God in the desert and so God turned away from them (Acts 7:42). The Jewish leaders were now rejecting God again with their beloved temple now becoming a worthless idol following the death of Christ.

Psalm 71:1-20

We should pray for our rulers to be people of justice and righteousness.

Queen Elizabeth II has had a spectacularly long reign because we all pray for her when we sing the National Anthem: ‘God save our gracious Queen. Long live our noble Queen’. Prayers really do work.

Our politicians should deliver the needy who cry out and the afflicted who have no-one to help, particularly our most vulnerable citizens, unborn children (Psalm 72:12). They should take pity on the weak and the needy, to save them from death.

We lose over 200,000 unborn children a year in the UK because we no not rescue them from oppression and violence. Their blood is precious in God’s sights (Psalm 72:14).

God alone does marvellous needs and we should praise his glorious name for ever.

Jesus created the world and he will be with us until the end of time. He will endure for ever and his words will feed us and water us so that we flourish (Psalm 72:5-7).

Image: Absalom’s monument: Alien is, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

King David flees / Stephen Seized: June 10th 2021

2 Samuel 15:13-16:14

David was informed that his son, Absalom, had treacherously stolen the hearts of the men of Israel.

David decided to flee from Jerusalem, along with all his officials. The king left ten concubines behind to ‘take care of the palace’ (2 Sam.15:16). What could possibly go wrong with this plan seeing that Nathan had prophesied: ‘I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight’ (2 Sam.12:11)?

Ittai the Gittite showed far more loyalty to King David than his own son. Ittai promised that he and his men would stay with David (2 Sam.15:21). The whole countryside wept as the king passed by accompanied by Zadok, the priest, and the Levites carrying the ark of the covenant.

David told the priests Zadok and Abiathar to take the ark back to Jerusalem. David had total confidence in the Lord’s righteous judgement as to whether he saw it again: ‘Let him do to me whatever seems good to him’ (2 Sam.15:25).

David went up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went. He was barefoot and had covered his head. David prayed that his son Absalom would receive foolish advice and sent one of his friends back to Jerusalem as a spy.

Ziba, the steward of Saul’s grandson Mephibosheth, met David and provided him with donkeys and a copious supply of provisions. However, he slandered his master to King David, who believed him and gave him all Mephibosheth’s land and possessions.

A man called Shimei, from the same clan as Saul, came out and cursed David, throwing stones at him. One of David’s men offered to cut off Shimei’s head but David would not allow this. He knew that there was truth in Shimei’s accusation that he was ‘a man of blood’ (2 Sam.16:8). David told his men to let Shimei curse him as the Lord might see his distress and repay him with good (2 Sam.16:12). David and his men arrived at their destination exhausted but he then refreshed himself.

David had suffered a hard, difficult day but he had seen loyalty from his faithful friends and allies and he had shown patience, long-suffering and restraint. He had wept, walked barefoot and exhausted himself but at the end of the day, he had been refreshed by the provenance of God.

Acts 6:1-7:19

The apostles wisely decided that they could not do all the work themselves and so asked the disciples to choose seven men to help them. These were the first deacons of the church. They had to be ‘full of the Spirit and wisdom’ (Acts 6:3). The disciples were very pleased with this proposal. They chose seven men, including Stephen, and presented them to the apostles, who then prayed and laid their hands on them.

It is a sign of a healthy church community when as many people as possible get involved in running it. We all have gifts and talents we can use to lighten the load and invigorate our worship. I have been to churches that are dying because the priest keeps most jobs to himself, refuses to delegate and only grudgingly allows a few people in a tiny clique to assist. If you are never asked to do anything at your church, move to where you can be fruitful, grow and be appreciated.

The number of disciples in Jerusalem grew at an exponential rate as the word of God spread and a large number of Jewish priests came over to the faith.

Stephen, one of the seven new deacons, performed great wonders and miraculous signs (Acts 6:8). However, people began to argue with him and their pride was dented because he could never be defeated in an argument (Acts 6:10). They stirred up false witnesses to testify against him. Like all the best lies, there was an element of truth to some of their statements: the new Christian community would permanently ‘change the customs Moses (had) handed down’ (Acts 6:14).

Stephen, with a face of an angel, delivered an impressive speech to the Sanhedrin giving them the whole history of the Jewish race starting with their patriarch, Abraham. Stephen proved that he was very knowledgeable of the scriptures and the Holy Spirit made him eloquent.

We never have to worry what to say if we are dragged in front of the authorities and persecuted for our Christian faith. The Holy Spirit will give us wisdom and the right words to say.

Psalm 71:19-24

The Psalmist asks: ‘Who, O God, is like you?’ (Psalm 71:19). His righteousness reaches to the skies.

Saint Michael is the commander of God’s angel army. Michael means ‘Who is like God?’ in tribute to the awesomeness of his creator.

During our lives we will see many bitter troubles but God will always restore us. We should not lose heart when God rebukes us because he disciplines the people he loves (Hebrews 12:5-6).

God will increase our honour, comfort us again (Psalm 71:21) and the discipline we suffer will produce a harvest of righteousness and peace (Hebrews 12:11).

God is faithful and worthy of our praise. Praising God vigorously gives us joy, comfort and peace. When we are born again, we want to give everyone our testimony, telling everyone of God’s righteous acts.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_stoning_of_St_Stephen._Oil_painting_attributed_to_Orazio_Wellcome_V0017355.jpg

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