Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Promise Without Hyperbole - Advent Meditation

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall 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. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.”
-2 Samuel 7:12–16

One of the patterns we find in Scripture is that of a promise with two fulfillments. God makes a massive promise to His people, and we see it fulfilled, but only in the barest sense. The language, in that first fulfillment, seems hyperbole. Yet that isn't because God is prone to exaggeration; it is because that first fulfillment is only a foretaste of what is to come.

With these words, God establishes a covenant with David as king. A covenant is a set of promises that create a special relationship. It is with these promises that God sets King David on the throne of Israel and creates a special relationship with him as Israel's king.

Of course, there is a sense in which these words apply to all of David's descendants. God promises him a son to succeed him, which David finds in Solomon. Solomon builds God's temple, and he has a special relationship with God, and when He sins, he is certainly disciplined. Indeed, it is the theme of discipline that resounds most clearly through David's immediate line, as so many of them turn aside to other gods.

Yet even at the height of Solomon's power this statement seemed a bit exaggerated. Israel is shattered, and while the throne continues, it's position is tenuous. Hardly the security and eternality of reign envisioned here. And while God is to David and his children a Father in terms of His faithfulness and love, it is still only grasping at the outer edges of the idea.

Things seem even more exaggerated when you advance the clock a bit. After a few short centuries, Israel itself is toppled. Its monarchs are hostages of foreign powers, its people have been led off into captivity, and David's throne seems to have disappeared. Yet Scripture's response is not to assume that God's promises had failed. Rather, it was that they were always meant for a fuller realization than Israel might have imagined.

These are the words of the prophet Isaiah in the face of impending exile: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)

The problem was not that God's promises were too great. It was that our expectations were too small. The child we should be anticipating is something far greater than a compromised Solomon. It is one who is called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, [and] Prince of Peace.” It is one who will bring never-ending peace and unshakable justice and perfect righteousness, and who will bring it forever, world without end.

That is, obviously, not a promise a human monarch can realize. Isaiah's prophecy is one of many that drove people anticipating the coming Messiah to be somehow more than human. To be God Himself, come as David's Son, to rule His people as their King. That was the promise, and in Jesus Christ, that promise found its full form.

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20) These are Paul's words of blessing to the church in the city of Ephesus. They are words which this promise bears out. God promises His people a divine king, but He doesn't lower the bar to manage human limitations. Instead, in the fullness of time, He does more than His people could ask or imagine. He comes Himself to establish His rule of peace.

The problem is never that God's promises are too great. It is that our expectations are too small.

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel's strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.

-Charles Wesley, Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

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