Other sermons in this series
As beginnings go, you’d have to say that the start of this book isn’t the most exciting. Often, biblical books end with the death of a much-loved hero. But not 1 Kings. It starts with a whimper as Israel’s greatest king gets old, grows frail and dies. These chapters address bad circulation, early onset dementia, and the problems we leave behind. They seem to be more ‘aged care facility’ than Sunday morning at MPC! This part of the Bible is messy, disappointing, and frustratingly ambiguous. It is not particularly inspirational. Instead of getting 1 Kings off with a bang, it starts our new series with a definite fizzle. And that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do! The first 11 chapters of 1 Kings that we’re looking at over the next 5 Sundays are written to give us a dose of reality. They’re here to remind us that we are mortal and flawed, and that even the most capable of us can’t do it on our own.
I should warn you that reading the books of Kings takes a little bit of patience. Our writer likes little hints, and delicate suggestions. He likes to take us on mystery tours and give us hints, rather than make summary statements in block capitals. But reading these books really does repay the effort, not least because they deal with life the way it really is. And that is a surprisingly rare thing.
An old friend of mine, Carl Trueman recently wrote this:
Western culture has slowly but surely pushed death, the one impressive inevitability of human life, to the very periphery of existence.
We don’t like talking about it. We don’t like thinking about it. For all our advances as a race, we still haven’t worked out how to cope with our mortality. But we know, deep down that we can only hold tragedy at bay for so long. We can only look on the bright side of life for so long. Sooner or later, the fragility of life will break into our experience. So what do we need? We need God to speak into our world to shape the way we think and feel and act. To help us to learn how to think about ourselves and other people, and life and death and wisdom and foolishness.
That’s where we’re going. This part of 1 Kings is written for the real world. Our world. The world in which we live and die, the world in which we are called to be godly. This is real wisdom for the real world. Robust, authentic, nourishing, satisfying wisdom. And where does this book start?
This chapter starts in a very strange place – it starts off with an old man who is a shadow of his former self. Oh – and did I mention? He’s in bed. And his feet are cold.
DAVID – THE CHALLENGE OF FINISHING WELL
Look with me at 1 Kings 1:
When King David was very old, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him.
This chapter is full of references to ‘the King’ – the word is used over 30 times. But the sight of this King is rather pathetic. This great King – this vigorous man who fought battles with giants, built a kingdom, a man who struggled to keep his libido in check, has come to the stage where even the gorgeous young virgin in the bed beside him is only interesting to him as a hot water bottle.
2So his attendants said to him, “Let us look for a young virgin to serve the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm.” 3So they search throughout Israel for a beautiful young woman and find Abishag, a Shunammite, and bring her to the king. 4 The woman was very beautiful; she took care of the king and waits on him, but the king hadno sexual relations with her.
I hope you can get the vibe here. She is beautiful. David is past it. This is sad. David is a shadow of his former self.
Earlier this year, Muhammad Ali died.
He was one of the greatest athletes who ever lived – he was a prince of a human being. He was funny, articulate, handsome, fast and strong. He had integrity. But in the years leading up to his death, it was so sad to see him. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease. His speech was slurred. He shook badly. The contrast with the Ali I grew up with could hardly have been more stark. And the David in 1 Kings 1 is almost unrecognisible.
But David’s issue isn’t illness. It goes deeper than that. David has lost his way.
If we could take time to read from 2 Samuel 12, when David slept with a woman called Bathsheba, engineered the death of her husband, and then married her, we would find the story of a moral slide. The giant slayer isn’t quite so quick to say ‘the battle belongs to the Lord’. The instinctive leader isn’t quite so decisive. The ‘man after God’s own heart’ doesn’t seem quite so focused on the honour of the Lord. In fact, spiritually speaking, it’s downhill all the way.
Incredibly, David has lost interest in who would rule after him. Back in 2 Samuel 7 had been told by Yahweh himself that one of his sons would rule on his throne forever. His dynasty will never end. But David couldn’t care less about that any more. He’s lying in bed, sleeping, having his feet warmed by Abishag, whilst everything falls apart around him. In fact, in 1:5, it becomes clear that David is rapidly losing control of his kingdom.
The King is in bed. There is a political vacuum, so Adonijah, David’s fourth son and the oldest surviving heir, steps into the picture. David had never had much interest in Adonijah, and had left him to his own devices (His father had never rebuked him by asking, “Why do you behave as you do?“). David had also clearly not explained that God picks the King – he doesn’t ask for volunteers – so Adonijah puts up his hand and says ‘Me, me, me – Can I be king? Can I be king?‘ He gets some chariots and horses to make sure he looks impressive, recruits some key allies, and arranges a coronation party. And what’s David doing while all this is going down? He’s in bed with his human hot water bottle mumbling ‘Aaaahhh – that’s nice’. It’s fair to say that King David is not finishing well. The King has completely lost control.
That’s underlined in verses 15 and 16. When Bathsheba, Solomon’s mum and Nathan, the veteran prophet, intervene to try to sort out the mess, it just highlights how far David has fallen.
15 So Bathsheba went to see the aged king in his room, where Abishag the Shunammite was attending him. 16 Bathsheba bowed down, prostrating herself before the king. “What is it you want?” the king asked.
Do you see the irony of the situation? Bathsheba, the woman whom David killed for, comes in to see him in bed with the gorgeous Abishag – but there is nothing going on. David is lost is in own world. The King is not ruling. He is not appointing a new king, he is just groaning.
In Hebrew, the point is even clearer – the words ‘what do you want?’ in 1:16 sound exactly like the word ‘king’. They capture exactly what’s going on. David should be acting like a king and naming the new king (melek). Instead David is dozing, muttering ‘what do you want?’ (mah-lak) He is doing nothing. He is merely reactive, as Bathsheba and Nathan try to stop the kingdom from going down the gurgler. This is not good! He is not finishing well.
Eventually, David is stirred into action in 1:29:
The king then took an oath: “As surely as the Lord lives, who has delivered me out of every trouble, 30 I will surely carry out this very day what I swore to you by the Lord, the God of Israel: Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne in my place.”
And, as we shall see, the day is saved. We get a glimpse of the David of old. But that isn’t the note on which David’s story ends. Read on with me as he gets out of bed to give his son and heir a final pep-talk at the start of chapter 2. His advice comes in two parts. And it shows that spiritually speaking, David has lost the plot
Part 1 – Be godly!
1 Kings 2:1 When the time drew near for David to die, he gave a charge to Solomon his son. 2 “I am about to go the way of all the earth,” he said. “So be strong, act like a man, 3 and observe what the Lord your God requires: Walk in obedience to him, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and regulations, as written in the Law of Moses. Do this so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go 4 and that the Lord may keep his promise to me: ‘If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.’
All good! Do what it says in Deuteronomy. Be godly!
Part 2 – ‘Act wisely!’
1 Kings 2:5. “Moreover, you also know what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, how he killed Abner and Amasa 6 Deal with him according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace… .8“And remember, you have with you Shimei son of Gera, the Benjamite from Bahurim, who called down bitter curses on me the day I went to Mahanaim. When he came down to meet me at the Jordan, I swore to him by the Lord: ‘I will not put you to death by the sword.’ 9But now, do not consider him innocent. You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood.”
David basically tells Solomon to do his dirty work for him. To settle some old scores. To deal with the henchmen that he had used throughout his life, but didn’t have the guts to discipline when they stepped out of line. To do what he promised not to do himself. To clean up the mess he had left. ‘To act with ‘wisdom” (2:9) This is the first mention of wisdom in the book. And it isn’t pretty.
To be honest, this is all a bit sad. These are David’s final words in the book. As far as he is concerned, it’s over.
2:10: Then David rested with his ancestors and was buried in the City of David. 11 He had reigned forty years over Israel-seven years in Hebron and thirty-three in Jerusalem. 12 So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David, and his rule was firmly established.
King David as he is called repeatedly in these chapters, is presented as a man who fails to finish well. David had everything going for him. But after the Bathsheba incident, he really was never quite the same again. Still capable of moments of great clarity, great leadership, but basically a guy who has run downhill.
At one level, these two chapters are a very simply challenge to people like you and me to live well – to start well, to live well, to finish well.
THE CHALLENGE OF FINISHING WELL
So can I urge you to do something? To get yourself set up for the long haul. Whether you are just starting out, undeniably middle-aged, or well and truly in the golden years, the challenge is the same. Set your heart on keeping going to the end. The greatest ‘achievement’ in life, if I can put it like that, is simply to keep going with Jesus. Right to the end, whenever that comes for us.
I wonder if I were to pass round the mike and ask everyone ‘What is your great goal in life?’ if anyone would just say ‘To keep following Jesus faithfully right to the end?’ You know I’d be really surprised. But I want to encourage you to aim really high – aim to finish well! To be able to say like Paul in 2 Tim 4:6:
The time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day -and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing…
Finishing well is hugely under-rated, it’s harder than it looks, but something really worth aiming for. And something that God himself is committed to enabling us to do! Paul also writes these words in Romans 15:
4For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. 5May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, 6so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…
We belong to the God of endurance, and encouragement So let’s keep going. Right to the end.
ADONIJAH – THE DANGERS OF SELF-PROMOTION
So much for David – what about the much neglected child called Adonijah?
I have had tall friends who were known as ‘Tiny’, heavier friends known as ‘Slim’, and even a bald friend who went by ‘Curly’. Adonijah would have fitted right in. His name means ‘Yahweh is Lord’. However, Adonijah’s agenda was a little different. Not so much ‘Yahweh is Lord’ as ‘I want to be king’!
As we saw earlier, Adonjah made a major play to be king. And he is smart – he signs up some disgruntled members of his Dad’s court, and his siblings, but stays well away from diehard David loyalists.
7Adonijah conferred with Joab son of Zeruiah and with Abiathar the priest, and they gave him their support. He gets David’s hitman, Joab onside. Joab must have despised the weakness and lack of action of the aged David, so he signs up. As does Abiathar, the priest. Even some of the old guard think it’s time to ease David out of the way. 8But Zadok the priest, Benaiah son of Jehoiada, Nathan the prophet, Shimei and Rei and David’s special guard did not join Adonijah. 9Adonijah then sacrificed sheep, cattle and fattened calves at the Stone of Zoheleth near En Rogel. He invited all his brothers, the king’s sons, and all the royal officials of Judah, 10but he did not invite Nathan the prophet or Benaiah or the special guard or his brother Solomon.
And in verse 9, he picks his spot, and throws what can only be described as a Coronation Party. The spill is very definitely on! Until that is, the trumpet sounds in 1:47, simultaneously announcing Solomon is the new king and spoiling Adonjiah’s party, and he is reduced to clinging to the altar in the tent of meeting for protection (1:50). Solomon graciously extends him mercy, and things calm down. He is restricted to the city (or perhaps even to part of the city). All is well. For a while. Until this happens:
1 Kings 2:13: Now Adonijah, the son of Haggith, went to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother. Bathsheba asked him, “Do you come peacefully?” He answered, “Yes, peacefully.” 14 Then he added, “I have something to say to you.” “You may say it,” she replied. 15 “As you know,” he said, “the kingdom was mine. All Israel looked to me as their king. But things changed, and the kingdom has gone to my brother; for it has come to him from the Lord. 16 Now I have one request to make of you. Do not refuse me.””You may make it,” she said. 17 So he continued, “Please ask King Solomon-he will not refuse you-to give me Abishag the Shunammite as my wife.”
Having a high opinion of ourselves, it seems, is not easily cured. Adonijah is not simply a boy in love. He knows exactly what he is doing. He is making another bid for the leadership. When you conquer another king in the Ancient World, you take over his wives and his harem. That’s how you announce that the new king is in town. He knows it. I suspect Bathsheba knows it. And pretty soon, Solomon knows it too. This is a not very subtle attempt to overthrow the new king. And he pays a huge price for his pride, as Solomon says ‘enough is enough’, and sends Benaiah, his ‘Joab’, to dispatch him in 2:25.
You see if David warns us that it is really tough to keep going right to the end, to finish well in our Christian lives. Adonijah warns us about the dangers of self-promotion. His life is a tragic warning about the character-forming, life-changing, head-turning , hell-deserving reality of unchecked pride. And yes, his parents clearly contributed to his lack of character. But Adonijah happily continued to make vaunting ambition a growth area, and so becomes a powerful warning against the dangers of allowing pride to take root in our lives.
The whole Bible speaks with one voice on this one – God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. And if you are anything like me, then you will need all the help you can get to spot, and reject and run from pride over and over and over again. Thomas Brooks, an English Pastor from the 17th Century once said this:
As low trees and shrubs are free from many violent gusts and blasts of wind which shake and tear the taller trees, so humble souls are free from those gusts and blasts of error which shake and tear proud, lofty souls… Pride fills our fancies, and weakens our graces, and makes room in our hearts for error. There are no men on earth so soon entangled, and so easily conquered by error-as proud souls… Souls that are thus a-soaring up above the bounds and limits of humility, usually fall into the very worst of errors, as experience does daily evidence. The proud soul is like him who gazed upon the moon-but fell into the pit.
That’s what God says to us through Adonijah. And then there is the strange intervention of Nathan and Bathsheba…
NATHAN AND BATHSHEBA – THE AMBIGUITY OF GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY IN ACTION
I think it’s fair to say that nothing in these chapters is entirely clear cut. And that applies to the actions of Nathan and Bathsheba too. They see that David has lost the plot – and apparently lost all interest in the promise that God made him to put one of his descendants on his throne back in 2 Samuel 7. So what do they do? They do what it takes! They hatch a little plan, and get the job done. But there is something fishy here…
We have to be careful with arguments from silence, but it is striking that neither Nathan nor Bathsheba, nor the narrator says anything about GOD as their political schemes take place. There isn’t really much about Yahweh in these two chapters at all. That’s unusual. They see that David has lost the plot, they realise that their position is under threat, and they fix it. Bathsheba in particular seems to be a pretty astute operator. Similarly, when she is asked by Adonijah to put a good word in for him with Solomon, she plays the innocent and passes on his request, and waits for the explosion from her son, which duly comes. So this odd couple take the initiative. And the end result? You can see it both in 2:12 and 2:46
So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David, and his rule was firmly established.
The big idea of these chapters – the key movement, if you like, is simply that God has kept his promise, and has done it by putting Solomon on his dad’s throne, in fulfilment of 2 Samuel 7. God has done this despite David, despite Solomon, despite Adonijah. And he has done it through Nathan and Bathsheba, who appear to have taken matters into their own hands! It seems that God works through even the plotting of Nathan and Bathsheba.
Now let me pause there for a second. I hope you can begin to see what the writer of 1 Kings is doing in this chapter – he is making it clear that our God is absolutely, sovereignly in control of these complex events, and also that none of the players in this drama are particularly godly. And we’d do well to take these two things on board.
Our God is sovereign, and that he works out his purposes irrespective of our motives. God does not work because we are godly. God uses Nathan’s political astuteness, and Bathsheba’s maternal ambition and ability to flutter her eyelashes innocently to great effect. We don’t know if there was the slightest ounce of a desire to honour God in either of them at this point – but it doesn’t matter really. God is clearly at work. He is sovereign. And in a way, that takes the pressure right off people like us. This is one of the things I love about being reformed – God is not only sovereign when we pray, or when we have thought through every possible consequence of our actions, or when we have consulted everyone we know who might possibly be wise – God is always sovereign – and that should free us up to act, knowing that he can and will take and use and reshape and halt and redirect our actions. Life is complex – but the fact that God is in control should set us free to act. In our world, it isn’t always exactly clear whether or not we should do something. ‘God’s will’ if I can put it like that, isn’t crystal clear. So what should we do? We should get on and do it! Like Nehemiah, we should pray and post a guard. Like Paul, we should say ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us’ and get on the boat. Like Nathan and Bathsheba, we should save the kingdom now. But there is a second thing.
God working through us doesn’t remove our responsibility to be godly. This is one of those parts of the biblical narrative which leaves us with a nagging feeling that not all is well. The silence is deafening when it comes to the honour of God. Solomon’s empire from the very outset is birthed in political expediency and manoeuvring. There isn’t much evidence of godliness on display. From anyone. And that always makes me nervous. Because at the end of the day, God will build his kingdom – with us, without us, inspite of us. What God asks of us is not success in that sense – it’s that we are godly. It’s that we love and treasure him. It’s that we are becoming more like the Lord Jesus Christ.
So have we got the fact that God is sovereign and he does all the heavy lifting? And have we got the fact that what he asks of us is that we are holy like him? That’s the message of Nathan and Bathsheba. Which brings us to the basic challenge that 1 Kings 1 and 2 present us with: are we living and dying God’s way, or our own?
LIVING AND DYING GOD’S WAY – OR OURS?
When the spotlight falls on David, we see the challenge of finishing well. Adonijah’s life glows with the dangers of self-promotion. Nathan and Bathsheba highlight the importance of getting on and doing something but raise the issue of personal godliness. And Solomon? The report of Solomon’s actions in the remainder of chapter 2 highlight the biggest issue we all face.
David tells Solomon to be godly, and then to bump a few people off. Solomon does the latter very well! When Joab hears that Adonijah’s coup has failed in 2:28, he knows that the game is up, and flees in desperation to the tent of meeting and superstitiously grabs the horns of the altar. Solomon and his new enforcer Benaiah, couldn’t care less what he’s holding onto. 1 Kings 2: 30:
So Benaiah came to the tent of the LORD and said to him, “The king commands, ‘Come out.'” But he said, “No, I will die here.” Then Benaiah brought the king word again, saying, “Thus said Joab, and thus he answered me.” 31 The king replied to him, “Do as he has said, strike him down and bury him, and thus take away from me and from my father’s house the guilt for the blood that Joab shed without cause.
However even as he gives the order to kill Joab, Solomon says But for David and for his descendants and for his house and for his throne there shall be peace from the LORD forevermore.” Very strange.
And there’s more unfinished business. Shimei, who cursed David, inadvertently breaks his house arrest in 2:39-40, and Benaiah is once more sent to do what he does best, and Shimei is executed in 2:46 – so the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon. This, of course, raises all kinds of questions. Why didn’t David do all this himself? How come he asks Solomon? Why hadn’t he dealt with all this stuff instead of lying in bed? How can David call this ‘wisdom’? Is Solomon really the perfect king who will reign forever promised in 2 Samuel 7? Things seem to be getting worse, rather than better. Is this really God’s wisdom in action? This seems far more like political self-interest… and that’s precisely the point.
The basic question that Solomon the wise faces as he becomes King is ‘Do I do things God’s way or my way?’ And what does he decide? To be honest, it doesn’t look good. The fact that chapter 2 is full of intrigue and bloodshed does not bode well. Like the rest of us, Solomon will have to live with the constant temptation to make self-interest and pragmatism the guiding star of his life. And right at the start of this book, it looks like he is going to give in. After David, we’re looking for a king who succeeds where he fails. A king who pushes on from his father – who builds on his father’s good qualities. But is that what we find? In these strange chapters, we find that yes, the kingdom is established – but it happens through an old king who finishes badly, a pretender who is all about self-promotion, a couple who are simply determined to get the job done despite the cost, and a new king who seems to value pragmatism over godliness. This is messy. This is ambiguous. This is not black and white. This is shades of grey. This is our world. Do you recognise it?
Like everyone who appears in this chapter, we are flawed people, who live in a flawed world. As people who have a huge capacity to mess up. To blow it. To finish badly. To choose ourselves. People who are weak This is how we need to think of ourselves. And how should we think of other people? As flawed people who live in a flawed world. As people who have a huge capacity to mess up. To blow it. To finish badly. To choose themselves. People who are weak Because if we think like this, we won’t be judgmental, or too hard on ourselves – we will be set free to forgive, free to admit failure, free to laugh at our foolishness, freed from the burden of having to cope, to succeed. We will be freed to run to the Lord Jesus Christ.
And that’s entirely appropriate, because ultimately, these chapters are about him.
1 KINGS 1 and 2 AND THE KING
God made extravagant promises about the King who would come from David’s family. His perfect, permanent King certainly wasn’t going to be David. David couldn’t even manage to hand over the crown properly. But we know already that no matter how spectacular Solomon manages to be in the rest of 1 Kings, he isn’t the one. Already we have a King who is flawed. Who make bad choices. Who has blood on his hands. We really do need a better king than this! And the great news is that we have a better king than this.
A king who did finish well – shockingly, selflessly well, as he died in our place, and rose and now reigns forever. We have a king who completely rejected self-promotion, but made himself nothing as he went to the cross. We have a king who does get the job done, but does so in complete and perfect and obvious dependence on his father, saying ‘Not my will but yours be done’. A King who never gives into temptation to do things his way without reference to God his Father. These chapters sketch what the king will be like in outline. This chapter is not shallow. It is entertaining in the richest sense. Because it shows us ourselves. It shows us life. It shows us death. It shows us Jesus. A King whose wisdom is pure and good. A King who chooses not to be served, but to serve, not to kill but to be killed. A King who shows us real life, and real joy and real peace, who embodies real wisdom. These chapters ultimately make me want to cling to the Lord Jesus and never, ever let him go – for he alone has the words of eternal life.