Summary: Fourth Sunday in Advent, this sermon sketches the Christmas solution to an ancient OT mystery: How God’s promise of an everlasting throne to David is kept after God also punishes David’s line with virtual childlessness.
The Mystery of the Childless King
Do you like murder mysteries? Do you like detective stories? I know that I do. And, evidently, so do a great many other people. Mysteries – whether they are about murders, or bank robberies, or political conspiracies – are exceedingly popular.
In today’s lectionary we have the beginning and the climax of the greatest mystery ever conceived. but, it is not a murder mystery. Compared with all the fictional mysteries you can find in the literature of dozens of nations, this mystery differs from them all in two respects. The mystery itself does not involve a murder, or any other crime. It involves a birth. And, secondly, this mystery is proclaimed by all its publishers as historical fact, not a literary fiction.
We see the beginnings of this mystery in the Old Testament lesson for today. The background to the reading we heard a short while ago is the establishment David as King over God’s people in Jerusalem. In gratitude for God’s blessing, David purposes in his heart to build a house for the Lord. He sees that he himself dwells in a palace, while the Ark of the Lord dwells in a tent. So, David wants to build a great temple in which the Ark of the Lord may rest.
However, God intervenes and sends David a message by His prophet Nathan. “… the LORD tells you that He will make you a house,” the Lord says to David. “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. … My mercy shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.”
This portion of Scripture is what Bible teachers and theologians call the Davidic Covenant. It is a unilateral promise from God that David’s throne will be established forever. Moreover, God promises that he will not abolish his promise to David and his descendants, as He did with wicked King Saul. Three times, God uses the word “forever” as regards David’s throne, David’s house, and David’s kingdom.
The psalm appointed for today is typical of many psalms found in the Old Testament Psalter, Psalms which are sometimes referred to as Davidic Psalms, not because David composed them, but because they refer to this promise God gave to King David. Psalm 132 is one of the Psalms of Ascent, a psalm that was sung by pilgrims who were going up to one of the three annual feasts in Jerusalem. In this psalm, there is a prayer, based on God’s promise to King David, and it begins in verse 10:
For Your servant David’s sake,
Do not turn away the face of Your anointed.
11 The LORD has sworn in truth to David;
He will not turn from it:
“I will set upon your throne the fruit of your body.
12 If your sons will keep My covenant
And My testimony which I shall teach them,
Their sons also shall sit upon your throne forevermore.”
So, as the pilgrims are journeying toward Jerusalem for the feasts, this song contains a prayer for the current Davidic heir who sits on the throne in Jerusalem. “For your servant David’s sake, do not turn your face away from your anointed.” And, the next two verses remind God of his promise to King David that his sons shall sit upon his throne forevermore.
By the time that this psalm makes it into the canon of the Old Testament Psalter, I’m pretty sure that Israel’s faithful were beginning to sense a problem. For when you look over the history of the Kings of Israel that came after David you notice something distressing. They don’t do very well as far as keeping God’s covenant, or learning God’s testimonies and statues. Indeed, with each passing generation, they seem to grow less and less righteous, more and more wicked, increasingly foolish, and finally rebellious.
The low point of the Jewish Kings comes in the days of Jeremiah the Prophet, when God sends a message to Jeconiah that reads like this: [Jer. 22:29-30]
29 O earth, earth, earth,
Hear the word of the LORD!
30 Thus says the LORD:
’Write this man down as childless,
A man who shall not prosper in his days;
For none of his descendants shall prosper,
Sitting on the throne of David,
And ruling anymore in Judah.’”
Here, then, we have a puzzle, the makings of a profound mystery. God has made a promise to David, that his throne would be established forever. And some 400 years later, the same God who promised an eternal throne to David, says to the last Davidic King to rule in Jerusalem that he would be childless. This does not mean, of course, that he would sire no sons. Rather, it would mean that none of his sons would ever inherit his throne. His throne would the same as if he had never sired sons, as the prophecy explains in Jeremiah 22:30. "Childless" means this: “a man who shall not prosper in his days, for none of his descendants – you see, he shall have descendants – none of his descendants shall prosper sitting on the throne of David, and ruling any more in Judah.”