Today’s readings reflect a turning point in the narrative of Israel as a nation:
2 Samuel 5:3 marks the culmination of David’s rise from shepherd boy to shepherd-king. It also completes Israel’s transition from a federation of tribes to a united monarchy with a capital city. That transition began in 1 Samuel 8, when the elders of Israel demanded a king to lead the nation. The LORD acquiesced and had the prophet Samuel appoint Saul as the first king (1 Samuel 10:1). David enters the story in two ways: 1) as a harpist whose music relieved Saul’s torment when an evil spirit from God came upon him (1 Samuel 16:14-23); and 2) as a young lad who fearlessly slew the Philistine warrior Goliath (1 Samuel 17:20-51), and was subsequently appointed to a high rank in the army by Saul. Though David became Saul’s son-in-law, and was loved by both Saul’s daughter, Michal, and his son, Jonathan, Saul was jealous of David and relentlessly pursued David intending to kill him. As he dodged Saul, David acquired followers, resources, fighting experience, wives, and even a Philistine city to use as a base (Ziklag).
Second Samuel begins with the account of David’s hearing that Saul and Jonathan had been killed in battle. David responds to this news with a stirring lament (2 Samuel 1:17-27). David then goes to Hebron where the people of Judah (in the south) “anointed David king over the house of Judah” (2 Samuel 2:4). Saul’s son, Ishbaal, was appointed by Abner, the commander of Saul’s army, as king over Israel in the north (2 Samuel 2:8). “There was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David; David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker” (2 Samuel 3:1). Today’s 2 Samuel 5 text follows the assassinations of Abner (2 Samuel 3:20-30), and Ishbaal (2 Samuel 4:5-8). The elders of Israel come to Hebron, “King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel” (2 Samuel 5:3).
To appreciate this moment of unity and hopefulness, it is necessary to recognize the costs of the division that preceded it. The biblical narrator presents David as protective of Saul as God’s designated king and loyal to him in life and in death, while recounting the terror and bloodshed of Saul’s campaign to eliminate David and anyone considered loyal to him. Many contemporary persons reading and preaching on these verses will have experienced the trauma of being caught in this kind of political and inter-regional conflict.
The verses that follow the anointing of David as king over all Israel report David’s conquest of the Jebusite city of Jerusalem, and his designating it as the capital of the newly united kingdom. Jerusalem was conveniently located between the northern and southern territories so it offered the prospect of aiding in unification.
In the second half of today’s reading (2 Samuel 6:1-5), David leads a massive procession to accompany the transfer of the ark of God from Baale-judah to the new capital, Jerusalem. The ark, a large box, functions as God’s throne; a visible place for God’s invisible presence. (See Exodus 25:10-22.) The ark went ahead of the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness.
The ark’s first home in Canaan was in the sanctuary at Shiloh. During a battle with the Philistines, the Israelites called for the ark to be brought into battle (1 Samuel 4:4), but the Philistines captured the ark. Possession of the ark proved disastrous for the Philistines in Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron. The Philistines set the ark on a new cart, along with golden objects as guilt offerings, hitched the cart to two cows and pointed them towards the Israelite city of Beth Shemesh (1 Samuel 5-6). The Israelites celebrated the return of the ark, but seventy men were killed because they looked into the ark (1 Samuel 6:19). To protect people from violating the holy presence of the LORD, the ark was moved to Abinadab’s house and his son Eleazar was consecrated to guard it.
By retrieving the ark from Abinadab’s house in 2 Samuel 6, David sets out to deliver a visible sign of the LORD’s presence and dominion in the new capital. Other ancient Near Eastern rulers demonstrated their allegiance to their god(s) and signaled divine favor upon their rule by processing a statue of their city’s god into the capital and housing the statue in a temple designated for that god.
Two things stand out in the account of David’s procession: 1) there is no temple in which to place the ark; during David’s reign it will reside in a tent; 2) the procession is interrupted (in the verse following the end of today’s reading); a reminder that the divine presence and power that accompany the ark are not under David’s control.
As the kingdom is united under David and the ark of God arrives in Jerusalem, the monarchy assumes a new role in protecting and promoting Israel’s religious life. Subsequent royal households will be judged on how well they fulfill that responsibility.
The ark procession is a form of religious pageantry; a noisy and joyous profession of God’s protection and blessing, and of God’s residing in the midst of God’s people.
The opening verse of Psalm 150 complements the celebration of the immanence of God in 2 Samuel 6 with praise for God’s protecting and blessing presence in the very structures of creation. God’s holy space is the “mighty firmament” (raqia‘; NRSV “dome” in Genesis 1:6, 7, 8) that shapes the world and gives life to “everything that breathes” (Psalm 150:6).
Holy One of Israel, King David worked hard to return the Ark of the Covenant to Israel so that the people could honor you in your house of worship. Receive our praise in this house of worship, as we rejoice in your presence. Amen.
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty ELW 858/859, GG 35, UMH 139/826 Praise God, from whom all blessings flow ELW 592/884/885, GG 606, NCH 776-781, UMH 95, TFF 276
O praise God in his holiness, David Willcocks