This is my fifth study on God’s covenant in the Old Testament. For previous published posts on covenants in the Old Testament, click on the link below. The link will also list future posts on this topic.
Nathan’s oracle in 2 Samuel 7:1-17 is God’s unconditional promise to David that his dynasty would last forever. A parallel passage version of God’s promise is found in 1 Chronicles 17:1-27 and a poetical version is found in Psalm 89:20-38. The passage in Psalm is a later theological exposition of the oracle found in 2 Samuel. Although the Hebrew word for covenant berit does not appear in Nathan’s oracle, the word appears in Psalm 89:29 and 89:35. God’s promise to David in 2 Samuel 7:1-17 is the covenant God made with David and his descendants.
The proper understanding of God’s covenant with David requires a clarification of the reasons God rejected Saul’s kingship. Although a complete explanation is beyond the scope of the present study, two things can be said about God’s rejection of Saul’s kingship.
First, the divine rejection of Saul’s kingship was not a rejection of Saul as a person. This is clearly understood from a reading of the text. Second, Saul’s kingship was related to the unique historical circumstances that brought about the establishment of the monarchy in Israel.
At a later time I will return to Saul and God’s rejection of Saul’s kingship. Below, however, is a brief outline of the reasons God rejected Saul and established his covenant with David.
Two critical situations in Israel forced the people to request Samuel to appoint a king to rule over them. The first issue was Samuel’s old age and the corrupt ways by which Samuel’s sons discharged their duties as judges in Israel. The second situation was the menace posed by the Philistines. The capture of the Ark of the Covenant and the destruction of the sanctuary at Shiloh brought great humiliation to the people of Israel.
The elders of Israel said to Samuel: “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5).
In the days of Samuel, Israel was a theocracy and God was their king. Under the covenant God had established with Israel, kingship was not God’s ideal for Israel. But, in order to accommodate the people’s request, the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7).
Saul was selected by God himself to be the first king of Israel. “The LORD told [Samuel], ‘Here is the man of whom I spoke to you. He it is who shall rule over my people’” (1 Samuel 9:17).
However, Saul’s kingship was conditional. It was based on the people’s and Saul’s obedience to the commandments of God. When Samuel presented Saul to Israel, Samuel said to them:
“And now behold the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked; behold, the LORD has set a king over you. If you will fear the LORD and serve him and hearken to his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, it will be well; but if you will not hearken to the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then the hand of the LORD will be against you and your king” (1 Samuel 12:13-15).
Saul disobeyed the Lord, not only once, but twice. Samuel said to Saul, “You have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which he commanded you” (1 Samuel 13:13). God’s reaction to Saul’s disobedience was very painful. The Lord said: “I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments” (1 Samuel 15:11 RSV).
God’s intention for Saul’s kingdom was to give him a stable and long lasting kingdom. Samuel told Saul: “The LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever” (1 Samuel 13:13).
God’s Covenant with David
Once God rejected Saul’s kingship, God ordered Samuel to begin the process to select another person to take Saul’s place. Samuel told Saul: “But now your kingdom will not continue; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart; and the LORD has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you” (1 Samuel 13:14).
Under God’s instruction, Samuel went to Jesse’s house in Bethlehem and there anointed David to become the next king of Israel. It took several years for David to be crowned king of a united Israel, but after the death of Saul, David became king, first of Judah, and then of all Israel.
Saul’s kingship was conditioned on the obedience of Saul and the people to the laws of God (1 Samuel 12:14-15). Since Saul’s kingship failed, God took a different approach with David’s kingship. David’s kingship was based, not on the obedience of David and his descendants, but on the grace of God.
Thus, when God established his covenant with David, God promised that his covenant with David would be an eternal covenant. “My steadfast love I will keep for him for ever, and my covenant will stand firm for him. I will establish his line for ever and his throne as the days of the heavens” (Psalm 89:28-29).
“I will not violate my covenant, or alter the word that went forth from my lips. Once for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. His line shall endure for ever, his throne as long as the sun before me” (Psalm 89:34-36).
The decision to give the kingdom to David was irrevocable, that is, God would not reject David as he had rejected Saul. Samuel said to Saul: “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent” (1 Samuel 15:28-29).
Characteristics of God’s Covenant with David
1. It was an unconditional covenant: God would not remove the kingdom away from David’s sons because of their sins:
“When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; but I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you” (2 Samuel 7:14-15).
2. The king would become God’s representative on earth and would enjoy a special relationship with God:
“I will be his father, and he shall be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14).
3. God promised David that his kingdom would be established forever:
“Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever” (2 Samuel 7:16).
The Continuity of David’s Kingdom
When God established his covenant with David, God promised him that his throne would last forever. God said: “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever” (2 Samuel 7:16).
But the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and the deportation of the Davidic king to Babylon placed God’s promise in jeopardy. The people in exile began to doubt God’s power, his ability to overcome the god of Babylon, and his commitment to fulfil his promises to David.
After the end of the monarchy and the exile of Judah, the prophets believed that God would raise another descendant of David to rule over God’s people: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1).
In exile, the prophet Ezekiel proclaimed that after God restored the nation, God would send another David to be king of God’s people: “My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes” (Ezekiel 37:24).
God’s promise to David, that his throne and his kingdom would be established for ever gave rise to the Messianic hope that some day God would send someone, a new David, who would fulfill God’s commitment to David and his dynasty.
However, the events of history conspired against that hope and brought many disillusionments to the people of Israel. To many, it seemed that the hope for a new David had to be deferred indefinitely.
But, “in the fulness of time,” the hope for the coming of a new David found fulfillment in the life and ministry of a lowly carpenter, a descendant of David: “And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” (Matthew 21:9).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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