So David died in a good old age, full of days, riches and honour.
And his son Solomon succeeded him. (I Chronicles 29:28)
The lectionary readings for the past month have focused on the life of King David, one of the most complex but renowned kings in ancient Israel.
We read about his singing and wild dancing as he brought the ark to Jerusalem.
We heard how he defeated the Philistine giant, Goliath, by slinging a rock as fast as a bullet flies.
We witnessed David praying and weeping for his love-child by Bathsheba, and then, when the child died, he takes time to worship.
In today’s reading, we heard about David as an old and sick man.
The sermon this morning will focus on King David’s final days, and the controversial legacy of his royal polygamy.
David was seventy years of age when he died.
He was crowned king when he was 30; he reigned as monarch in Hebron for 7 years, and in Jerusalem for 33 years, for a total of 40 years on the throne.
It was a long, strenuous and stressful reign.
The biblical span of life is seventy years, or “three score years and ten,” as the Psalmist reminds us:
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:9, 10)
Notice the image the psalmist used to describe to describe dying, “we fly away.”
It’s the image of life as a bird that just takes off from its perch and flies away, lost in the horizon.
Seventy is not very old by some of today’s standards.
When someone dies in their 70’s today, we are prone to quip, “that’s still young.”
We certainly have a list of prominent people living actively well beyond 70 and 80.
Queen Elizabeth immediately comes to mind. She’s 89, and has given no indication of stepping down in favour of her 66 year-old son.
Pope Francis became pope three years ago when he was 76; he, too, shows no signs of slowing down.
At 70, David was old and stricken, and suffering from cold chills, or palsy.
He was too feeble to rise from his bed, or walk unaided, or keep himself warm.
The court historian couldn’t resist telling us how David warmed up.
A decree went out to the whole land to search for a beautiful virgin who would cuddle up to the king, but without sexual intimacy. They found the beautiful teenager, Abishag, for the king’s bed and chamber. Abishag cherished the king, and her hygienic role was to prolong David’s life by sharing her young breath and warm body with him.
David had a very hard and stressful life as king in Jerusalem. At 70, he was worn down by an unending list of stressors.
Here’s some of the concerns of his daily life:
The wear and tear of military life; the bitter court intrigues about succession;
the management of a large household of wives, concubines, sons and daughters;
the debilitating heat of the climate; and add to these, the tormenting cares, fears, sorrows, for his own sins and that of his children and people. Add up the list of stressors, and you have the psychological conditions for a very debilitating old age.
At 70, David confessed to his son, he was ready to go, “the way of all the earth.”
This phrase is an ancient euphemism for the universality and inevitability of death.
Everyone on earth must die, sooner or later: high and low, rich and poor, great and small, good and bad. Life’s course is invariable, uni-directional, natural, the way of all the earth.
Nature has one path only, and you cannot travel it more than once.
The court narratives tell us that David went “to sleep with his fathers,” that is, he was buried in a tomb with his royal ancestors, in the City of David.
Archaeologists in Israel are unsure whether the City of David refers to Jerusalem, or to Bethlehem, as the original location for the tomb.
King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion that is frequented by tourists today,
dates back only to the Middle Ages and was the site chosen by the Crusaders.
These are the accounts of David’s old age and death. An important milestone for the people of Israel. But the king’s polygamous lifestyle, however, is a much more controversial legacy.
David was a man of his time, and lived within the moral boundaries of his culture.
The bible gives us the names of 8 of David’s wives, and the names of 20 of his sons. In addition, he had scores of children by his concubines.
His household was filled with babies, kids, teens and youth, and their needy mothers. Unfortunately, daughters were seldom counted in the royal chronicles.
Since there was no moral prohibition against having multiple wives,
there was no shortage of women for a king of David’s stature to marry.
David’s favourite wife was Bathsheba, who regularly visited and advised him.
She bore him four sons, the youngest was, Solomon.
David had promised Bathsheba that he would appoint her son Solomon as successor, but this caused a lot of hard feelings and attempts by other sons to usurp the throne.
The cultural tradition of multiple marriages common in David’s time, continues today in the Middle East, and elsewhere. It remains one of David’s questionable legacies.
Islam allows a man to have up to 4 wives, but it is an exception, not the rule.
Multiple wives for Muslim men requires meeting certain criteria, such as financial and physical ability to sustain the wives and not make favourites of one over the others.
For example, a extreme and bizarre case made the headlines around the world last year.
A 64 year old Saudi Arabian man has been married 58 times.
Since a Muslim cannot be married to more than four women at a time,
he follows a strict marital pattern of marriage and divorce.
Three of his four current wives have been with him ever since he married them,
but the fourth seems to be the one who is replaced regularly.
“In 50 years, he says, he has married 58 women, and forgotten the names of most of them.”
Since divorce is relatively easy for the man, although expensive,
he has also divorced 54 of his wives.
“I like to change my fourth wife every year,” he quipped.
Most Muslim men worldwide, however, have only one wife, accepting the global cultural norm of monogamy.
King David’s polygamous style has followers in our own province.
A few years ago (2012), the United Church Observer, sent a reporter to visit
the isolated Mormon community of Bountiful, in southeast British Columbia.
There was concern about possible abuse and violation of Canadian freedoms.
One of the leaders, Winston Blackmore, currently has more than 20 wives and over 100 children. After the Supreme Court investigated the concerns of potential abuse, it refused to lift the polygamy ban in Canada that has been in place for a hundred years.
This means that polygamy continues not to be recognized under Canadian law.
Blackmore will be back in court later this year (2015), to set a date for another trial.
I conclude this morning with a question and answer.
Why should Christians be interested in the life story of ancient King David?
Because, from the earliest days of the church, Christians have found a Messianic connection back to David.
Each of the gospel writers made a special effort to point out the connection between Jesus and David. Matthew, for example, mentions Jesus as “the son of David,” 26 times.
God had made a covenant with David through the prophet Nathan, that a descendent of his will reign on his throne, forever. For the Christians, this descendent was Jesus, “the son of David.”
Hence King David is important in the Christian story of Jesus’ birth, and repeated every Christmas. Jesus’ royal line comes through King David.
Rev. Dr. Eugen Bannerman
August 9, 2015