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The Heroes' Journey (Part II)

So, when the old Prophet Samuel first found him, David was just the youngest of eight sons, a shepherd boy working for his dad. Samuel anointed him and said, “God has called you to be king of Israel”. Soon after that David joined King Saul’s army and killed the giant Goliath, and King Saul was grateful at first — but then he became jealous and David had to become an outlaw, running and hiding in the hills until King Saul died. 

Then David became the king over Judah, his father’s tribe.But the rest of Israel refused to accept him. Instead, they crowned King Saul’s last remaining son, and started a civil war against the tribe of Judah. The war dragged on for seven bitter years. But in the end, when the last son of Saul was assassinated, the rest of Israel finally crowned David king. 

Then, soon after he became king, David conquered Jerusalem and built his palace there, and the scriptures tell us that God gave him rest from all his enemies: Israel was safe at last. No more invasions. No more war. 

So the first half of David’s life — the story of how he came to power — is the story of an honorable, righteous warrior, chosen by God and blessed in everything he does. It was mostly likely during this time that the young King David — just a little over thirty years old — wrote this psalm. 

He says: 

[1] Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge. 

David is enjoying this time of peace, and he prays that it will continue. 

[2] I said to the Lord, "You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing." 

Here David confesses that even though he is the King of Israel, he himself has another King over him: the Lord, God himself. David is very aware that, if God had not chosen him to be king, he would still be a shepherd working for his dad. No wonder he says, “apart from you I have no good thing”! 

[3] As for the saints who are in the land, they are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight. 

And this is where David really begins to speak as a king. He looks at the people he has been called to serve, and he is delighted by them! Why? Because they are “the saints who are in the land”, the “glorious ones”. 

The feeling he expresses here is actually very similar to the feelings we often have when we look at our children. We see them thriving and growing well, and we also say “in them is all my delight.” And this makes sense, because in the ancient world, a king was often considered a father to his people. 

[4] The sorrows of those will increase who run after other gods. I will not pour out their libations of blood or take up their names on my lips. 

Of course, as king, David has to acknowledge that not all of his people are growing well; scripture tells us that even at the best of times — or, more accurately, especially at the best of times — many Israelites turned aside to worship other gods. Just like we do as parents when we see a child making poor choices, David looks at the situation and tells the truth: those who keep on following the wrong path will end up bringing sorrow upon themselves. 

“But,” David says, “even though some of my people are going the wrong way, I will not.” This is why he says he will not pour out blood sacrifices or pray to false gods — he will remain faithful to the God who raised him up to be king. 

And this is actually a very important point. We have already notice that in the ancient world, a king was often considered a father to his people, or like a husband to them. He was supposed to provide for them, protect them, serve them. If he neglected his obligations, and turned aside to serve himself, his people would suffer. We see this even today: when a the rulers of a nation begin to serve themselves instead of the people, very quickly corruption sets in, the economy stumbles, and things get worse. When husbands and fathers begin to believe that their family exists to serve them instead of the other way around, families suffer. 

So one of the unfortunate truths of this world is that even if the common people of a country are righteous, if they have an unrighteous king they will end up bearing the consequences of their king’s sins. 

But…the opposite is also true. Even if the common people of a country are unrighteous, if they have a righteous king they will end up enjoying the blessings that come from living in a land where justice and stability rule. We definitely see this in effect today! Social scientists tell us that there is a direct correlation between government corruption and economic growth: the more fair and honest a government is with its citizens, the better the country thrives. Now, we all know that the majority of people in western countries are — how can I put this delicately? — they are not very dedicated to the things of God. The gods of the West are — let’s face it — money and pleasure. By biblical standards, western peoples are unrighteous. They are running after other gods. As David says, their sorrows will continue to increase. 

At the same time, the very reason so many westerners have been able to get so fabulously rich is because they are enjoying the blessings of uncorrupted governments. Please notice, I am not saying that western governments are righteous! However, because many western governments began to take shape during the Age of Faith, they were founded on some biblical concepts about what justice and fairness is supposed to look like. That is why western governments tend to be on the “less corrupt” end of the spectrum even though they are not Christian governments at all; and why western citizens continue to enjoy the blessings that come from Christian values, even though the people themselves are very far from righteous. 

So David’s commitment to remain faithful is actually very important. He knows that all of his people — the righteous and the unrighteous — will benefit from his faithfulness to God. He knows that the longer he remains faithful, the more time the unrighteous will have to repent and return. In fact, for centuries after David, long after all the people had turned aside to other gods, they continued to benefit from David’s faithfulness. Again and again God says, “you people are completely corrupt! But for the sake of my servant David I am reluctant to destroy you.” Because of David’s faithfulness, many generations of unrighteous people had the opportunity to repent. None of them, on the Day of Judgement, will be able to say that God did not give them every opportunity! 

And all because they had a righteous king who remained faithful to the God who anointed him. 

David goes on: 

[5] Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. [6] The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. 

And it is pretty obvious what he is saying here: he is completely happy with how God has organized his life. 

[7] I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me.[8] I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. 

Here again David confesses that even though he is the King of Israel, the Lord God is David’s king. But this time he focuses more on God’s relationship with him, which is a father-son relationship. Like a father, the Lord gives David good advice; at night, David’s own heart reflects on the things his father talked with him about during the day. David feels perfectly secure with his dad there to take care of him! 

[9] Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure,[10] because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. 

See, David has figured something out, something that is pretty important. Remember: people who are ruled by a righteous king receive the blessings of that king’s righteousness, at least during the lifetime of that king. Good so far? 

Okay: this is where it gets cool. Because David has realized that he is ruled by a righteous king who is also the Lord God, who lives an eternal lifetime. So David has realized that the blessings of God’s righteousness will go on forever. In other words, David has realized that even in death he will continue to experience all the good things that God has given him in this life. 

And this is actually a pretty significant development in the ancient understanding of what death is like. In those days, three thousand plus years ago, the ancient peoples of the Middle East envisioned the place of the dead as a gloomy cavern full of shadows, a place of dust and scattered bones and worms, where the spirits of the dead live on in some strange sort of half-existence, remembering the joys and pleasures of life but unable to taste, unable to touch, unable even to speak, aware of what they have lost, but unable to do anything about it. 

And because they believed death was a state of semi-conscious suspended animation, ancient people believed it was very important how you died, because your dominant thoughts and emotions would be carried with you into the grave. They believed that if you died in sorrow, or in fear, or bewilderment, if you died violently in battle, those emotions would just play and replay for you in that never-ending dream-state, like a nightmare you can’t wake up from. But if you lived a peaceful life and died in your bed, then your dream-state would be much more pleasant, and your regrets much less. 

This is why the earliest Old Testament writers do not suggest that the righteous and the unrighteous go to different places after death: they believed the dead just continued on as pale shades of who they were in life, all waiting for Judgement Day. If you were a pleasant person in life, your experience in death would be more pleasant. Even so, all the ancient authorities agreed that death is a lonely state of being, even for good people. 

But David is saying something new here. He is saying, “no! My condition in death will not be one of loneliness and waiting. God, you are my King, my father. You are not going to leave me in the place of the dead, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” 

The word that David uses here to describe himself — “Holy One” — is a word that also means “Beloved One”. Once again, this is the language of the family. Husbands: your “Beloved One” is your wife, right? (right?) And she is your “Holy One” not because she is perfect but because she has been dedicated to you alone by the covenant of marriage. She belongs to you, and you delight in her, right? (right?) Well, that is the idea captured by this word “Holy One”. David is not saying that he is perfect, and that’s why God loves him. David is saying that God has chosen him, dedicated him — anointed him — to be king, and that makes him God’s “Beloved One”. 

Basically, David knows that God delights in him in the same way that David delights in his people. David has said that his people “are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.” He also knows that he, David, is the glorious one in whom is all God’s delight. 

In short: God’s covenant with David will never end because God will never end. Which means that the blessings of God’s covenant will never end. And so David has realized that, even after death, he will not be entering into that shadowy place of decay and semi-conscious regret. Instead: 

[11] You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. 

David’s vision of what death will be like has changed. He is confident that he will enjoy in death all the pleasures that God provided for him in this life. He believes he is going to live in God’s presence forever. 

Which is a wonderful idea! 

… 

But was he right? 

The story of David’s rise to kingship is a wonderful one. And it makes sense, really: we expect God to bless such a righteous king. 

But the story of the rest of David’s life is…not so wonderful. Only a few years after he wrote this psalm, King David was idling on the roof of his palace, he looked over the balcony, and saw a beautiful woman bathing. Her name was Bathsheba, and the story of David’s adultery with her is one of the more famous stories in the bible. 

Yes, David repented. Some of his most beautiful psalms were written after that sin; we often read those psalms of confession and repentance here in our church. Yes, God forgave him, as he forgives everyone who confesses and asks for mercy. But David’s kingdom was never the same after that. Three of David’s sons repeated their father’s sin; two of those sons rebelled against him, first one, then the other, and Solomon barely made it onto the throne. 

Yes, David did die peacefully, in his bed. It was a good death! — but still: it was death. At his highest point, David had written, “my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay!” But in the end, his body went into the grave, and decayed. A millenium later, the people of Jerusalem could still visit the monument their ancestors had built over his tomb. And they could wonder if, perhaps, David was not actually God’s blessed “Holy One”, but just a common sinner like everyone else. 

So was David wrong? Did he go to the place of the dead after all, his spirit trapped semi-conscious in the tomb where his body lay? Or was he filled with joy in the presence of his King, his father, his God? 

Well, for a long time no one knew for sure. The prophets who followed David began to write of death more hopefully. They knew David was a prophet, and that he wrote what he wrote by the inspiration of God. So they too, inspired by God, began to speak of how, at death, the souls of God’s beloved enter peacefully into his presence. 

But still, there was David’s tomb, his bones within it, proving his words wrong. And if David was wrong about his body not seeing decay, could he also be wrong about where his spirit went after death? 

… 

For one thousand years, this was a matter of faith. Either you believed David, and the other prophets who said that the souls of the righteous enter God’s presence — or you didn’t. At first there was hope, as David’s son took the throne, then his son, then his son, then his son, and people could say that David’s kingship lived on in the bodies of his descendants. But then David’s line ended. The last king of David’s family was forced to watch while his children were slaughtered, and then his eyes were scooped out, and he was dragged away to Babylon in chains — a terrible way to end! For a long time it looked like David and all the prophets were wrong. 

And then, in the very darkest hour, a prince was born to a distant descendant of David. He grew up. He performed amazing miracles. He preached the free forgiveness of God. He won his war against Satan, and entered Jerusalem, his capital city, riding on a donkey, a mode of transportation that cries, “Peace! Peace! The great war is over!” 

But his people turned against him. They were not interested in God’s forgiveness. They wanted a warrior who would conquer the world for them. They wanted to be healthy and wealthy and powerful. So they crucified him on a Friday morning, and buried him before sunset: the last king of David’s line, come to a terrible end, his spirit condemned to live on in semi-conscious half-dreaming horror until Judgement Day. 

… 

But it turns out that David was not talking about himself when he said “you will not let your Holy One — your Beloved One — see decay”! David was a man. He knew very well that his own body would die, and decay! He was a king: he knew very well how much his sins would affect his people for generations to come; he knew he deserved death as a penalty for the suffering his unfaithfulness caused. But he was also a prophet, who knew that one day one of his sons would be God’s true “Holy One”: a perfectly sinless, perfectly faithful king. 

See, David knew that he could not be perfectly faithful. He wanted to be, so that his people would be blessed by God because of their king’s righteousness. But he knew he would fail; history tells us he failed. And yet, David had this hope: that one day God would give his people a king so perfectly sinless, so perfectly faithful, that God’s people would be blessed for all eternity because of their king’s righteousness. David’s hope was not in his own righteousness; he was looking forward to the true “Holy One” who would bless David and all his people for all eternity. 

And Jesus, David’s son, was — is — that King. God did not abandon his body in the grave, but raised him back to life. It is Jesus who is God’s Holy One, his Beloved One. It is Jesus who says, in Psalm 16, “I will not turn aside after other gods.” It is Jesus who says, “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.“ And it all happened, just as David prophesied: forty days after his resurrection, Jesus was taken up into heaven to rule as King. He is there now, in his body, experiencing eternal pleasures at his Father’s right hand. 

… 

Which is great for Jesus. But how does this benefit David, or us for that matter? David’s tomb was lost almost two thousand years ago when the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem. Each one of us will die, and if the Lord delays his return long enough, even our bones will one day turn to dust. Decay will come to us all. So where is our hope? Why does David write so joyfully about the resurrection of a distant descendant, one who will be raised generations after David’s death and burial? 

David writes this way because he understands the ancient principles of kingship. A corrupt king brings suffering on his people, even if they are righteous. But a righteous king brings blessings on his people, even if they are not perfectly righteous. A righteous king does not see decay; he is lifted up into heaven to live at God’s right hand — and his people are lifted up with him. As it says elsewhere in scripture, “our lives are now hidden with Christ in God.” David knew that he could not be a perfectly righteous king; but he also knew that he did not need to be in order to enter God’s presence after death; he knew that as a son of The Righteous King, he would experience all the blessings of that Righteous King in this life and in the next, even though he could not be righteous himself. 

We share the same hope. Is Jesus your King? When he spoke to you and said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven,” did you hear him? If you did hear him, if he is your King, then guess what? Just like David, we cannot be perfectly righteous; but just like David, we do not need to be. Jesus is our Righteous King. He obeyed his Father’s Law perfectly. He died unjustly. But his body did not see decay: he was raised by the power of God, his was lifted up to heaven, and he was crowned King over all. 

Make no mistake, friends: Jesus is your King, whether you acknowledge him or not. Every benefit that we enjoy in this life — whether we are Christian or non-Christian — is a blessing that comes from his faithful Kingship. For as long as there is breath in the body, life in the lungs, there is hope for every one of us to turn and accept his offer of forgiveness, and confess that he is Lord. Everyone benefits, in this life, from Jesus’ righteous rule, even those who refuse to accept him as king, just as all Israel benefited, in this life, from King David’s faithfulness, even those who ran after other gods. 

But death makes all the difference. How we die matters, friends. No, it doesn’t matter if you die violently or at peace or anything like that. What matters is what king you claim as yours. I don’t want to disappoint any of you, but if you show up before God’s throne saying, “the Sultan of Malaysia is my king! Bless me according to his righteousness!”…well, you may not experience all the blessings that one could hope for. Equally, if you show up saying, “my career is my king! Bless me according to my professional success!” or “my parenting skills are my king! Bless me according to my childrens’ good behaviour!” — friends, if you breathe your last breath trusting any other king but Jesus, then I really fear that you could find yourself in darkness, like a person waking from a nightmare that never ends. 

But: “if you confess with your mouth. ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” We will be saved not because we are righteous but because our King is righteous. “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference! We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But we are justified freely by his grace…” The blessings of God are a free gift from our King to his people. 

If you have not yet recognized Jesus as your king, do you want to? Do you want to live knowing that your life is now hidden in Christ, and your death will be but a gateway to eternal pleasures at our Father’s right hand? 

Then make it so. Accept the fact that God raised him from the dead. Say, “Jesus is Lord.” And there you go: so easy wat! 

And then join us next week, and the week after, and the week after that. Be a part of God’s people. Let us rejoice with you, as you rejoice with us. May our King say of us on that Great Day, “you are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.” 

Amen 

Figure That One Out, If You Can

The Heroes' Journey (Part I)